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First Amendment Rights Online

David Kravets, who writes for a blogsite called “Threat Level,” has sounded the free-speech-is-in-peril alarm over Republican-sponsored proposals in both houses of the New York legislature that would stop Empire State-based websites from posting anonymous comments.

Kravets claimed the measures threaten the First Amendment and “stand no chance of surviving any constitutional scrutiny even if they were approved.”

In addition, Kravets mused, “Had the internet been around in the late 1700s, perhaps the anonymously written Federalist Papers would have to be taken down unless Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay revealed themselves.”

Surely Kravets isn’t likening the famous Federalist Papers to unsigned cyber-screeds, paranoid rants, and conspiratorial flights-of-fancy such as the ones about President Bush being behind the 9-11 attacks, poisonous jet contrails, FEMA concentration camps, and President Obama’s plan to outlaw fishing.

It is true that 18th and 19th century papers routinely published pen-named pieces. But I don’t know of any paper today that prints unsigned commentary, either letters-to-the-editor or op-ed pieces. Some papers don’t allow anonymous comments at the bottom of their online stories. I’m for all that. The courts evidently are cool with it, too.

Heck, the paper I wrote for even demanded phone numbers from letter writers, not for publishing, but for contacting the correspondent to make sure he or she actually penned the epistle.

Okay, I wouldn’t vote for the bill if I were a New York lawmaker. I’m uncomfortable with government requiring bloggers to sign their blogs.

But if this old reporter were a blogsite boss he'd exercise his First Amendment right to make bloggers tack their names on what they write or they wouldn't get posted. I don’t see any difference between cyberspace and newsprint.

Kravets wrote that bill backers say they want to curb “mean spirited and baseless political attacks” and shine “the spotlight on cyberbullies by forcing them to reveal their identities.”

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A sponsor of one of the bills admits he was cyberbullied. For what it's worth -- and in the spirit of ecumenism because I'm a lefty Democrat -- here’s some advice from a guy who regularly attracts plenty of cyber hate mail from people who hide behind pseudonyms: ignore them.

In my book, no name equals no credibility. With few exceptions, anonymous bloggers are nobodies and they know it. They’re desperate to be noticed, but don’t have the guts to put their names to their opinions. By and large, anonymous bloggers, especially those with cutesy or macho-sounding pen names, are legends in their own minds but nobody else’s, except maybe fellow chicken, no-name bloggers.

berry craig

In any event, Anderson Cooper and Billy Bob Thornton were talking about anonymous bloggers on Cooper’s TV show the other day. Cooper decried “a kind of meanness that exists now” on the internet. He said anonymity permits people to “just throw mud at other people” and “say things they wouldn’t say in a million years face to face.”

Thornton suggested such a blogger was “some sort of mouth-breathing moron, who sits around…in his basement, and he's all creeped out, and he's got Cheetos bags everywhere.”

I’d bet that hit pretty close to some cyberbully homes.

But I’ll hand it to Kravets. His name is on his stuff.

Mine’s always on my stuff, too.

So go ahead and call me -- even anonymously -- an enemy of the First Amendment for thinking people who run websites should require these cyber chickens – Cheetos-chomping creeps or otherwise – to sign their stuff.

Berry Craig

If you do, you'll put me in pretty crowded company. Thousands of newspaper editors and publishers – Republicans, Democrats, liberals, moderates and conservatives -- agree with me.

Berry Craig