Anonymous criticism has its place

Photo by Kaity Chaikowsky.

In a 1960 Supreme Court case, Talley V. California, Associate Justice Hugo Black held unconstitutional a Los Angeles city statute that prohibited the distribution of anonymous handbills and pamphlets.

Talley was a resident of California who was passing out pamphlets outside of certain businesses. These businesses, at that time, were discriminating based on race — an unthinkable practice now, but commonplace in the early ’60s. Talley’s pamphlets encouraged customers to go elsewhere and listed the names of other discriminatory businesses to avoid. The pamphlet lacked the name of an author, however, and Black argued that anonymous literature has been key not only for the development of our country, but for the development of mankind.

“Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind,” Black wrote.

Citing a previous court decision, he insisted that anonymous writings “have been historic weapons in the cause of liberty.”

Though the University of Dallas operates in a different context than the United States as a whole, the court’s decision is a reminder that anonymous speech has a place in a free community.

The writer of a recent article in The University News claims otherwise. He asserts that anonymity, including that of Facebook pages such as University of Dallas (Unofficial), is only appropriate when authors’ “lives and livelihoods” are at stake; otherwise, anonymity or effectively anonymous pseudonymity is merely a safety blanket for “cold and timid” critical souls against which Theodore Roosevelt, in a famous speech at the Sorbonne, inveighed. Therefore, the UD community as a whole is guilty of failing to engage “authentically and benevolently” due to the prevalence of these anonymous outlets in the community.

To claim that the entire UD community is inauthentic and malevolent due to a few anonymous outlets is a gross generalization. Does this mean to say that the professors are guilty of inauthenticity? That the UD frisbee team is guilty of malevolence? That the newly formed fencing club does not engage in proper dialogue? It does not matter how improper these anonymous outlets may be; to indict the whole community is poppycock.

But let us grant that this generalization is valid. The writer claims that these outlets are improper, not because they say naughty things, but because they do not fit his precondition for impropriety: namely, that they are not anonymous expressly to protect the “lives and livelihoods” of the authors. I disagree.

There are other perfectly justifiable reasons why an author would wish to write anonymously,  none of them having to do with inauthenticity or malevolence.

There is necessity for UD (Unofficial) to be anonymous for at least two reasons. It is anonymity that has kept the page alive. No doubt it would have been shuttered years ago if the administration had known the names behind the Facebook page.

Second, anonymity or pseudonymity can allow an author, or group of authors, to ensure that ideas that they introduce into public discourse speak with an authority greater than their own.

Often readers judge ideas with reference to their authors and not with reference to their intrinsic value. For this reason, scores of authors have been written under pseudonyms: Samuel Clemens wrote as Mark Twain; William Sydney Porter as O. Henry; Charles Dickens, occasionally as Boz; and Charles Lamb often wrote under a female pseudonym, Elia.

Unforgettable also are those authors who wrote under the collective pseudonym Publius — authors who, it must be noted, wrote when the Revolution was fought and won, and any serious dangers to their persons, originating from unpopular opinions, had passed.

Cardinal John Newman, who, while still an Anglican, was advocating for Catholic reforms in the English church, once wrote a series of pamphlets addressed to clerics and laymen known as “Tracts for the Times.” Newman and his collaborators chose to remain anonymous.

“I am but one of yourselves, a Presbyter; and therefore I conceal my name, lest I should take too much on myself by speaking in my own person. Yet speak I must; for the times are very evil, yet no one speaks against them,” Newman wrote.

As Newman demonstrates, it is entirely possible to write anonymously, and yet neither cowardly nor unvirtuously.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here