Protect anonymous speech
October 4, 2002
In defense of Roger Marolt and in response to Dave Reed (Aspen Times 10/02/02) I would like to remind everyone of the long history of anonymous writings and letters in America.
Roger Marolt’s use of a pseudonym is nothing new or unique. Many of the great founding Fathers of our American Constitution like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, and many others, published their philosophical and political works anonymously and the use of pseudonyms during the late 1700s continues to shape our democracy today.
During the late 1700s, popular opinion was often more of a prior restraint than the government. It was an emotionally charged time because the colonists had just fought the Revolutionary War and were considering amending the Articles of Confederation. Fortunately, “nom de plumes” were common place and frequently used in newspaper essays and pamphlets.
The Constitutional Convention was held to try and fix the Articles of Confederation. Newspapers didn’t run daily accounts of what happened because the Convention was held behind closed doors. So the only way newspapers were able to include information about the Convention was through delegates who volunteered information. However, delegates were under strict orders not to discuss the convention. Thus, authors using pseudonyms who wrote newspaper essays and pamphlets became crucial in informing the people about the new Constitution ? and the issues surrounding its ratification.
Even before the Constitution was printed a great debate about whether or not there should even be a Convention was argued in newspapers. Signed and unsigned support for and against the Convention and then the ratification of the Constitution dominated newspapers and pamphlets. The Federalists used pseudonyms to protect the authors from harm, encourage readers to focus on the issues and arguments and not the authors’ personalities, and to distance oneself from one’s own interests.
Pseudonyms were advisable for James Madison, a Federalist, because he had little personal prestige in New York ? the main target of the Federalist Papers ? and even though he was a Virginian, he was considered a “foreigner.” Further, Jay and Hamilton were also considered “outsiders” in Virginia, and if they were to be effective in trying to rally support for the ratification of the Constitution, anonymity was critical.
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Just as Roger Marolt did recently, early American Patriots used pseudonyms like Publius ? author of the Federalist Paper, An American Citizen, A Countryman and Caesar to make their points. In fact, anonymous works in support and opposition to the Constitution played a significant role in the Constitution’s adoption and later, its amendments. Pseudonyms allowed authors to write and espouse their views without fear of physical or political consequences, the readers to focus on the issues rather than the authors, and to educate the readers about the Constitution and issues surrounding its ratification. Sound familiar?
Just like Aspen’s letters to the editor pages, these early Patriots were truly an example of the concept of the Marketplace of Ideas at work. Both sides ? whether right or wrong ? were able to submit their views to the public through newspapers and pamphlets and let the readers decide how they felt about the Constitution. Anonymity gave the authors the power and freedom to participate in this Marketplace of Ideas and help colonists become educated and aware about this new form of government.
We still feel and live the impact of the Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalists anonymous works. Many of the complaints the Anti-Federalist had about the Constitution were later incorporated into the Bill of Rights ? such as the First Amendment. Further, the U.S. Supreme Court has cited the Federalist Papers more than 250 times. More specifically, in terms of anonymous speech, the Supreme Court cited the role anonymous speech has played in shaping our democracy by citing the Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalists’ pseudonyms as examples why our country needs to protect anonymous speech.
So Roger was simply following in a very long tradition of anonymous/pseudonymous speech and is to be applauded, not criticized, for introducing new debates into Aspen’s own “marketplace of ideas”.