- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 20, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Kentucky State Rep. Tim Couch introduced legislation earlier this month that would outlaw anonymous postings on Web sites. The bill would require any person commenting online to “register a legal name, address, and valid electronic mail address.” A person’s full name must be posted alongside their comments and the Web site’s host must be able to provide the additional information for anyone who posts “false or defamatory information.”

The bill is intended to deter online harassment, or cyber-bullying, which has become a major concern with the popularity of social networking sites and interactive online forums. Mr. Couch thinks that people forced to provide their real names with their comments will be less likely to write anything harassing or libelous. The bill would also allow those who do write inappropriate comments to be contacted and punished, if need be.

The problems, of course, stem from the bill’s bald violation of First Amendment rights. There is a long history of protection for anonymous speech in the United States, from McIntyre v. Ohio to Talley v. California, two precedent-setting court cases that upheld the right to anonymous speech. And although this issue has yet to be directly addressed in relation to anonymous speech on the Internet, we contest that this bill would, in fact, severely infringe free speech.

Beyond the issue of constitutionality, the bill would be nearly impossible to enforce despite the fact that, if enacted, it would only apply to Kentucky-based businesses. Blogs and personal Web sites can be registered without a location but businesses usually register for security reasons. Therefore, monitoring blogs and online journals — which generate the majority of reader posts — would be literally impossible. And businesses registered in Kentucky could simply move beyond the reach of the state law.

Mr. Couch has said that he doesn’t plan to push his bill (and we hope he holds true to that promise). His intention was simply to draw attention to the growing problem of cyber-bullying. We’re all concerned about cyber-bullying, but we’re more concerned when a lawmaker threatens our civil liberties and wastes public dollars on dimwitted legislation.

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