Lawmakers Consider Barring Anonymous Speech Online

Gretchen Gallen
NEW JERSEY – Fearing that two bills currently before lawmakers would have a chilling effect on free speech, a coalition of companies and civil liberties groups have banded together to urge the New Jersey Legislature to withdraw them from consideration and avoid incurring an onslaught of unfounded lawsuits against people who already are protected under federal law.

Bills A1327 and A2623, now facing the New Jersey Assembly, would throw a wrench at anonymous online speech by requiring Internet service providers to record user identities and reveal them in any cases involving claims of defamation over the Internet.

In opposition to the bill is a coalition that includes the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Craigslist, Public Citizen, the U.S. Internet Industry Association, the Center for Democracy and Technology and USC's Gould School of Law – arguing that protecting anonymity is vital to maintaining the diversity of viewpoints on the Internet, even if it allows “name-calling and strongly worded opinions.”

Bill A1327 calls for the operators of chatrooms or message boards to remove any information considered “defamatory or offensive” and to reveal the identity of whomever posted the information in the first place. The second bill, A2623, requires website operators to record the names and addresses of people who post information publicly on their website and then to disclose that information when called upon to do so in cases of alleged defamation.

The EFF and other members of the coalition sent an open letter to the three authors of the bill arguing that the bills would impinge on 1st Amendment rights of Internet users and would unnecessarily castigate people whether defamation occurred or not.

“We believe that free speech is a fundamental human right and that the right to speak anonymously is vital to our society,” the open letter stated. “The vast web of electronic media that now connects us has heralded a new age of communications, indeed a new way to convey speech. New digital networks offer a tremendous potential to empower individuals in an ever overpowering world.”

The authors of the bills, Assemblymen Peter J. Biodi, Wilfredo Caraballo and Upendra J. Chivukula, have not yet responded to the coalition’s message.

“Since the A1327 and A2326 bills conflict with federal law and the New Jersey and federal constitutions, we urge you to withdraw your support for these troubling bills and not waste taxpayer resources defending laws that will inevitably be challenged in court and struck down,” the letter concluded.