Election year grandstanding at it’s best…
Kentucky lawmaker Tim Couch has proposed a bill that would criminalize anonymous Internet posting. Web site and forum operators would be forced to collect and publicly disclose identifying information about all of the visitors who post content on their sites. Failing to do so would lead to a fine of $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for each subsequent offense.
The bill, which extends Chapter 369 of the Kentucky Revised Statutes, would mandate collection of the complete name, mailing address, and e-mail address of all visitors who post Internet content. Web sites would have to display names next to all relevant content and establish procedures that enable anyone to obtain the rest of the information. The bill stipulates that mailing address and e-mail address only have to be supplied to supplicants in cases where someone has posted “false or defamatory” information.
Case law has unambiguously established that state regulation of the Internet constitutes a violation of the Commerce Clause. Couch’s proposal also likely falls afoul of the Constitutionally-guaranteed right to freedom of speech. If passed, Couch’s proposal would be doomed to a swift demise in the courts. In addition to serious legal obstacles, Couch’s bill would also face insurmountable implementation challenges. Web site operators have no means with which to validate the identification information they receive from users or guarantee its accuracy. If it were even legally permissible, a state-wide ban on anonymous posting would have little impact because it would not be enforceable against web sites outside of the state of Kentucky. Indeed, such a law would likely compel site operators to move their web sites out of Kentucky.
Finally, the proposal itself is ideologically antithetical to American culture and values. Anonymous publication is a time-honored tradition that has figured prominently in America’s literary and political landscape. Early American political philosophy was heavily influenced by Thomas Paine’s anonymous pamphlet Common Sense, and by Cato’s Letters, which were anonymously published by British writers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. Some of America’s greatest literary works have also been published under pseudonymsâ€”for instance the works of Mark Twain, who we know today as Samuel Clemens.
Couchâ€”who says that he has been the victim of anonymous Internet criticism himselfâ€”acknowledges that the bill is probably unconstitutional and claims that his goal is to draw attention to Internet bullying, which he says is a serious concern for many young people in his district. He does not intend to rally support for the proposal. “I think right now (online posting) is pretty much just on its own. It’s a machine that’s going to go its own way,” Couch told the Lexington Herald-Leader. “The state can try to pass some rules, but I don’t really think it would do anything.”
Proposing an inane, unconstitutional, and unenforceable law seems like a poor way to raise awareness of an issue. It looks like Couch needs some remedial education in civics and constitutional law, and I’m sure plenty of anonymous critics on the Internet will have similar opinions to share.
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