Anonymous speech is as old as graffiti — and as new as the views about certain Gilbert candidates’ religious beliefs found in a mailer sent by an anonymous group calling itself Concerned Arizona Taxpayers.
Anonymous political speech for corporate entities such as this group was upheld in 2010 by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case called Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission.
I’m conflicted about this. I think the content of what was said — to vote for or against someone based on their religious beliefs — has no reasonable place in politics. But even during weeks like this past one — in which reading local media reports about these unknown folks’ comments had me upset — I recognize that good arguments exist both for and against anonymous speech.
For example, look at the Arizona Constitution’s guarantee of free speech in our state, found in Article II, Section 6: “Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.”
Is saying someone’s religious membership should deny them public office “abuse” of the right of free speech? No. Even something of this nature, as insulting as it is, likely would be found by the courts as legally protected opinion. That is, you could make such comments so long as they are not composed of “fighting words” that could provoke someone to an immediate violent reaction.
History records many of our nation’s Founding Fathers hiding their profound views on liberty behind false identities because the British king called such criticism treason, punishable by death.
Yet few of us today really are in such a life-threatening position, although news website reader comments I’ve read across the Internet include those from people who say they don’t identify themselves with their real names because they fear that their bosses might discipline or fire them. Or they fear receiving harassing phone calls or mail.
That’s a red herring. When it comes down to it, most bosses aren’t concerned about the political views of their employees so long as they don’t involve the specific interests of the company. I can’t see the vitriolic back-and-forth over President Barack Obama’s birth certificate or the ramifications of Senate Bill 1070, for example, to involve the financial balance sheets of most businesses.
If your opinion is not about your workplace at all, but about politics or social policy — which it usually is — the “my boss will fire me” argument is pretty weak. I’ll venture to guess that most of these people didn’t even ask their bosses about the practice of making online comments. It’s far easier to come up with a clever screen name and claim your boss is an ogre.
As for phone calls and mail, anything that’s truly harassing or threatening is illegal and police should be contacted in the event that happens. I’m not here to advocate any threatening or violent acts. But take it from a guy who’s spent many years with his name, face and contact information in tens of thousands of newspapers every week:
Affording somebody the right and opportunity to simply disagree with you — even strongly — well, that’s called being responsible for your views. The mere desire to not wish to be bothered by someone who’s not your ideological buddy is no justification for anonymity. Heck, you bothered them first.
Which brings us back to this Gilbert mailer.
I’d like to see Concerned Arizona Taxpayers step forward and identify themselves. I don’t think they will, because they probably know that while identifying oneself often helps lend legitimacy to one’s views, their views wouldn’t be legitimized simply because they introduced themselves.
One well-known theory about the First Amendment is that the marketplace of ideas settles most of these matters on their own. That is, since most people don’t believe as the Concerned Arizona Taxpayers do, they aren’t going to take their ballot advice. Perhaps that is what will happen here. We can only hope.
But this mailer reminds us that our system of government calls for informed, fair-minded citizens who are called upon to respond to wrongs and to resist extreme points of view, rather than live in a climate of ignorance that only fosters more such opinions.
And so we are called upon to consider such views as painful and disagreeable to hear but allowable, just to remind us of what is out there, and of what to most of us should remain, well, out there.
Photo: Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.