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Outing Anonymous Bloggers:

A reader asked whether I could comment on the latest anonymous blogger outing controversy (the Whelan/Publius matter). I might have something on the ethical questions later, but those are questions that I find difficult to answer at any high level of generality (though maybe I'll have a breakthrough while I'm trying to compose the post). Long-time readers with unusually good memories might note that my response to the threats to out the then-anonymous Juan Non-Volokh was not particularly condemnatory of the person who threatened to out him. That too stemmed from my view that the ethical questions related to outing anonymous bloggers are not easy.

I do, however, want to suggest that two reactions to the matter are unwise.

1. Contrary to the view of Prof. Michael Krauss (Point of Law) that "[he] hope[s] the ... tenure committee [at the law school where Publius teaches] is watching and taking note," I hope the tenure committee completely ignores this.

As I wrote before, law school tenure candidates are generally supposed to be judged on (1) scholarship, (2) teaching, and (3) service to the university, profession, and community. One's nonscholarly writings, such as columns in a local alternative newspaper, blog posts, and the like might be seen as a form of community service; but they are not a major factor, and if a candidate doesn't want them to be considered, they generally aren't (at least in the absence of unusual misconduct such as plagiarism).

And this makes perfect sense. Evaluating a law review article is evaluating what should generally be a thoughtful, thorough, carefully footnoted work that pays close attention to counterarguments. Even so, ideological prejudice will inevitably color the evaluation; even if we try hard to be objective, we'll naturally think (all else being equal) that articles that come to views with which we agree are better reasoned than those that come to views which we have rejected. But at least we'll see the many pages that carefully engage our preferred arguments, the close discussion of ambiguities in the sources, and the product of many months or years of thinking; and we may therefore often accept the article as meritorious even if we disagree with its bottom line -- which is often only a small part of the article's value.

Evaluating quickly written and necessarily highly incomplete op-eds or blog posts will necessarily prove to be a much more partisan process. Such pieces tell us relatively little about the author's qualities as a scholar, and pose a relatively large risk of ideological bias in the evaluation. Of course some people on the Right are sometimes impressed by some blog posts coming from the Left, and vice versa; yet this will often not be so -- and more often than with scholarly articles -- for reasons that have to do with ideological disagreement rather than any objective failings on the poster's part. Considering such nonscholarly writing is not irrational; one can argue that they do shed some light on the author's qualities of mind. But since the important qualities for a scholar are the ones that he exhibits in his scholarship and teaching, and the tenure process already thoroughly evaluates those qualities, it makes little sense to also focus on material that has much less bearing on the subject, and poses more of a risk of unfair evaluation. Prof. Krauss argues that it's not "acceptable to try to trick tenure committees by hiding one's true views until one gets tenure"; but I don't think it's improper "tricking" when one doesn't publicize views that tenure committees shouldn't consider in the first instance, just as it isn't tricking a tenure committee when one doesn't publicly reveal one's sexual orientation or religious beliefs. And while Prof. Krauss argues that "One must think little of one's law school colleagues if one believes he will be censured for the expression (and not the quality of expression) of political views" and that one should "Confront your colleagues, or your friends, or your family, and convince them that your voice is a legitimate one," I think a professor whose careers is at stake might reasonably take a more cautious view: He might hope and even expect that his colleagues won't hold public political commentary against them, but worry that consciously or subsconsciously a few (perhaps a few who aren't going to be convinced of the "legitima[cy]" of other political views) will blackball him because of his political comments, and want to prevent that from happening.

Perhaps it's better and braver to be out of the closet from the outset about one's views. But a tenure committee shouldn't hold the contrary actions against a candidate who tried to remain anonymous but failed. It should evaluate the candidate on his scholarship, his teaching, and perhaps in some measure his institutional and professional service, not based on public off-the-cuff political commentary.

2. On the other hand, the suggestion that the outed blogger should sue -- made by a couple of commenters on Publius's blog -- strikes me as even more out of line. Identifying an anonymous author is speech, and presumptively protected by the First Amendment. One might think that it's unkind speech or unethical speech, but that surely doesn't strip it of constitutional protection.

Nor do any of the First Amendment exceptions apply. Accurately identifying the author of a blog isn't a false statement of fact. Even if the disclosure-of-private-facts tort is constitutionally permissible -- and I think it shouldn't be, though most lower courts disagree with me -- it seems to me that it can only be permissible with regard to a very narrow range of information that is both extremely private and of no conceivable relevance to public debate (perhaps the medical problems of a private individual, or pictures of someone in the nude). The identity of a public affairs commentator who apparently has several thousand readers each day strikes me as something that might well be relevant to public debate. Certainly it would be a very dangerous precedent if the coercive power of the legal system could be used to suppress such speech.

Likewise, I think the intentional infliction of emotional distress shouldn't be applicable to otherwise protected speech (i.e., speech that is outside the existing narrow exceptions, such as false statements of fact, threats, and the like). But whatever narrow scope that tort might permissibly have, surely identifying a political commentator can't plausibly qualify as constitutionally punishable speech. Perhaps there should be some exception for extremely rare circumstances, such as if the exposure creates a high risk of violence against the commentator -- though I think even that shouldn't qualify -- or if the commentator's identity was learned through illegal means). But surely no such circumstances should be present here.

As I mentioned, I think that anonymity, and outing of the anonymous, pose interesting questions of blogging ethics. But the focus should be on that, not on calls for legal restriction on speech, or for denial of tenure to scholars who should be evaluated based on their scholarship and teaching (and in some measure service) rather than on their public political commentary.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Outing Anonymous Bloggers:
  2. Another Blogging Pseudonym Bites the Dust:
Steve H (mail):

The identity of a public affairs commentator who apparently has several thousand readers each day strikes me as something that might well be relevant to public debate.


Would you mind explaining why? If it turned out that Publius was actually a Congressman or someone else in a position to benefit directly from the positions he was taking in his blog, then perhaps his identity would be relevant.

But otherwise, we're talking about the exchange of ideas on the Internet. I would think that the ideas Publius posted on Obsidian Wings could and should be evaluated on their own merits, regardless of whether the speaker is a bartender in Oregon or a professor in Texas.
6.8.2009 2:07pm
MLS:
The "outing" of an individual who for whatever reason chooses to comment anonymously, while certainly not illegal absent perhaps the most unusual of circumstances, is simply childish and petty behaviour on the part of the "outer".

I noted that Mr. Whelan is not inclined to be apologetic and attempts to rationalize the propriety of his behaviour. If anything, this reflects poorly on his reputation and character.

Yes, there are those who choose to comment anonymously, and hurl insults with particular gusto (though I do not believe this to be the case here). Perhaps Mr. Whelan would be wise in the future to simply walk away and resist the urge to engage in a "tit for tat" discussion. All that does is lower himself to the commenter's level.
6.8.2009 2:07pm
Steve H (mail):
Just to follow up, it seems that Publius's thousands of readers had no problem with Publius's anonymity. Otherwise they wouldn't be his readers.
6.8.2009 2:08pm
JB:
"Identifying an anonymous author is speech, and presumptively protected by the First Amendment. One might think that it's unkind speech or unethical speech, but that surely doesn't strip it of constitutional protection."

Precisely.

Outing Publius makes Whelan an ass*, but simply being an ass cannot and should not be criminal.
6.8.2009 2:09pm
Sebastian (mail) (www):
As someone who blogs under a pseudonym, I would not be particularly upset if someone threatened to "out me" if only because anyone who cares to look can find out what my true identity is. I don't take much pains to protect my identity. The pseudonym is largely to prevent Google associating my real name with what I blog.

I blog under a pseudonym to protect my career more than my identity. While shooting enthusiasts are not uncommon in the tech field, at least half of my geographical job area is New Jersey, who's culture is not entirely friendly to such hobbies. I definitely wouldn't want a prospective employer, particularly an HR person, discovering what I write on the blog.
6.8.2009 2:14pm
Mike& (mail):
Outging is generally classless. After his latest tantrum, I don't think anyone could seriously argue that Ed Whelan has any class.
6.8.2009 2:16pm
MAM:
Pretty tacky move to not respect a person's anonymity, particularly regarding o/wise harmless political/legal chatter.

Very childish and petty!!
6.8.2009 2:18pm
Michael F. Martin (mail) (www):
When are people going to realize that they are less anonymous online than they are off?
6.8.2009 2:19pm
frankcross (mail):
Very well put.

But, of course, you are looking at it from a rational perspective. Most others are just looking at it as ideologues. I'm quite confident they would take the opposite position, had the ideologies of the participants been reversed.
6.8.2009 2:21pm
M N Ralph:
Thanks for your thoughts on these two matters, Professor Volokh. Not much to add as I think you are likely correct on both points, other than to say that I would look forward to you tackling the more interesting and tougher ethical issues.
6.8.2009 2:21pm
rick.felt:
Outing is generally classless.

How classy is taking potshots at the non-anonymous from behind a cloak of anonymity?

I don't think Blevins or Whelan come out of this smelling particularly good, but if Blevins started it, I don't think he can complain. You don't tug on Superman's cape, and all that...
6.8.2009 2:23pm
Avatar (mail):
More to the point, when two people get sufficiently annoyed with each other, they're going to stop being polite to each other. Sure, we can have an argument over which side is the pettiest, but the whole series of exchanges hasn't exactly left me with a positive impression of either party.

The discussion of the effect of blogging on a tenure committee is interesting, though. Obviously if, say, one's blog were cited in a Supreme Court decision as if it were a law article, that would be a strong argument that the blog should be examined in a positive light regarding a tenure decision (and, probably, that you ought to give the guy tenure!) But if that's true, it might not be beyond the pale to say that a blog that reveals you as an antisocial jerk should get chalked up in the negative column, just like it would if everyone they asked about you said "oh, yeah, I can't stand him".

The question of politics is trickier, though. If you're in a situation where you've got to endorse a political orthodoxy in order to win approval for tenure, and your inclinations are outside that orthodoxy, pseudonymous blogging is much more attractive. However, it's not something one has a "right" to; perhaps the best advice is not to be a pseudonymous blogger in such a position AND try to be a fire-eating demagogue at the same time?
6.8.2009 2:25pm
Mike& (mail):
How classy is taking potshots at the non-anonymous from behind a cloak of anonymity?

Why do you consider that a counter-point to my assertion?
6.8.2009 2:25pm
Avatar (mail):
Rick, isn't the third line of that "you don't pull the mask off the ol' Lone Ranger"?
6.8.2009 2:26pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
As for the things a tenure committee is going to look at, is the canidate's personality really out of bounds? People are willing to go much further when they think their behavior won't get back to people who matter.

I would certainly think finding out that your potential hire is a closet jerk may play some part in your final decision.
6.8.2009 2:35pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Yes, but I don't think the song was referring to any sort of courtesy.
6.8.2009 2:40pm
Really Serious Business:
 

 

T H E      I N T E R W I B B L E  :

      Serious.   Business.   Now.


 

 
6.8.2009 2:41pm
ShelbyC:

How classy is taking potshots at the non-anonymous from behind a cloak of anonymity?


Anybody think maybe Ed Whelan is allergic to moral high-ground?
6.8.2009 2:48pm
don't out me bro:

I'm quite confident they would take the opposite position, had the ideologies of the participants been reversed.

I'm quite confident that Ed Whelan is Brian Leiter's equally evil twin.
6.8.2009 2:49pm
wolfefan (mail):
Hi -

In her weekly chat with Tucker Carlson at www.washingtonpost.com Ana Marie Cox drew a distinction between anonymous blogging and pseudonymous blogging:

"I've written under a pseudonym more than you'd guess (HA!), and I think it's important to make a distinction between "pseudonymous" writing and "anonymous" writing. Anonymous writing, to me, means taking every care that no one knows who wrote the item -- or if the author has ever written anything else or ever will again. An article that is anonymously authored exists in a vacuum. An article written by someone who consistently identifies himself the same way (as "Publius") did is at least giving readers a way to engage/argue/fact-check/hold accountable.

Anonymous writing allows you to throw a stinkbomb and run away with no one having spotted you. Pseudonymous writing allows you to throw a stinkbomb while wearing a mask, but you can't run away."

Her conclusion is that what happened here was not particularly helpful, but not unethical per se. I liked the distinction, though, and am considering how it affects my reaction to Whelan/publius.
6.8.2009 2:54pm
rick.felt:
Rick, isn't the third line of that "you don't pull the mask off the ol' Lone Ranger"?

Great catch! I actually had something typed out about that line, but deleted it, because I thought the entire analogy (including the Superman's cape part) was a stretch. I couldn't come up with anything I really liked ("don't start what you can't finish?" Nah. "Don't start no s---, won't be no s---?" Don't think so). My point was that Whelan's no intellecual lightweight, and got a lot at stake by putting his name out there, an he doesn't back away from a fight. I don't think that Blevins really qualifies as the Lone Ranger. I imagine that if you pulled the mask of the Lone Ranger, he'd kick you ass. Blevins is doing very little ass-kicking.

Why do you consider that a counter-point to my assertion [that "outing is generally classless"]?

Context matters. If outing is "generally" classless, it's reasonable to expect exceptions to the general rule. Outing someone who's abusing anonymity (which I think using anonymity to attack the non-anonymous) may qualify as an exception.
6.8.2009 2:56pm
Closet Libertarian (www):
Boy, if recent posts are an indication neither Whelen or Pubis will ever be read by me again. I find it hard to believe that Blevins has good reasons for anonymous blogging. Hiding liberal opinions in academia?

The quality of Blevins blogging should count against him in his tenure review.
6.8.2009 2:59pm
martinned (mail) (www):

As I wrote before, law school tenure candidates are generally supposed to be judged on (1) scholarship, (2) teaching, and (3) service to the university, profession, and community. One's nonscholarly writings, such as columns in a local alternative newspaper, blog posts, and the like might be seen as a form of community service; but they are not a major factor, and if a candidate doesn't want them to be considered, they generally aren't.

Is this everyone's sense? Over here in the Netherlands, there's an entry in people's annual performance evaluation for the ways in which the researcher makes his or her research socially relevant. We are expected to bridge the gap between university and community as much as possible. The manner in which this is done depends very much on the field of study, of course. It can include various consulting positions and board memberships, but also "nonscholarly writing", as long as it is based on one's research. Of course this does not include the more partisan things a scholar might write, but it does include newspaper articles written by various colleagues arguing for or against certain government decisions. Such writings are definitely considered in performance evaluations and job interviews. Is US practice different in this respect?
6.8.2009 3:00pm
wolfefan (mail):
Quoting Jim Croce is always all right by me. I may be biased, however, as I am a pool-shooting boy. My name be Willie McCoy.
6.8.2009 3:01pm
rick.felt:
Anonymous writing allows you to throw a stinkbomb and run away with no one having spotted you. Pseudonymous writing allows you to throw a stinkbomb while wearing a mask, but you can't run away.

Sure, the latter may be largely more respectable, but what's the basis for believing that either attempt at anonymity should be respected?
6.8.2009 3:02pm
Another pinhead (mail):
You don't tug on Superman's cape
You don't spit into the wind
You don't pull the mask off the ol' Lone Ranger

and you don't smack the Tar Baby*

(*used strictly in the Uncle Remus sense)

I's surprised that Whelan hadn't learned that one yet.
6.8.2009 3:05pm
MAM:
I don't understand. What's the legitimate purpose of outing someone who has been criticizing your views?

I don't see the value, but I'm all ears. As such, I'm finding it very hard to see if the outer's actions are ethical.
6.8.2009 3:09pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
"(*used strictly in the Uncle Remus sense)"

Among those who would care, there is no such thing as a safe usage of that term. Good thing you posted it pseudonymously, or you could get yourself in trouble.
6.8.2009 3:13pm
Blue:
Like my Dad is enamored of saying (and which oddly enough doesn't show up on a Google search), "Don't pick the nose of trouble." Publius relied on Whelan's background for a line of argumentation. Whelan putting Publius background out there for everyone to see in response is perfectly justified.
6.8.2009 3:14pm
NaG (mail):
As long as we do not expose the identities of anonymous commenters, I'm sure we will all be content.
6.8.2009 3:15pm
Steve H (mail):

How classy is taking potshots at the non-anonymous from behind a cloak of anonymity?


How or why does the classiness of the potshots depend on whether the potshooter is using a real name?

I think the psuedonymity/anonymity distinction is important. Publius's writings on ObWi were there for the world to see, so Whelan could have used them as the basis for any response he may have wanted to make. Or Whelan could have appeared on Publius's blog and responded to Publius's comments.

But instead, Whelan simply lashed out in a "You hurt me, I'm gonna hurt you" fashion.
6.8.2009 3:22pm
ArthurKirkland:
Perhaps, Prof. Volokh, you might wish to reconsider your position in light of Prof. Krauss' conflicting opinion.

Prof. Krauss is, you should know, an "expert," "nationally recognized," "prestigious" "elite" who produces "innovative" scholarly works . . . just check his websites.

Perhaps most telling, even Prof. Krauss' pets engage in "very selective breeding."

(Some jurisdictions, I believe, prohibit a lawyer's use of the term "expert," but I do not claim to be an "expert" or an "elite" with respect to legal ethics.)
6.8.2009 3:32pm
M N Ralph:

How classy is taking potshots at the non-anonymous from behind a cloak of anonymity?


It's the internet! Harsh, even unfair, criticism and name calling is par for the course. Outing someone can cause real world problems and, at least in this case, had no purpose other than to cause problems. Saying it's OK to out someone because they called you a name is like justifying a road rage shooting because you thought another driver was acting discourteously.
6.8.2009 3:37pm
Snaphappy Fishsuit Mokiligon:
I hereby predict that within the next 15 years a nominee for executive office or the judiciary will have to withdraw for failing to disclose his or her anonymous or pseudonymous postings on the internet.
6.8.2009 3:44pm
levisbaby:
I saw somewhere this morning - sorry I forget where - that Mr. Rosen's wife works at the pseudo-think thank of which Whelan is the president.

Interesting that anon. sources are presumably okay but anon blogging isn't.
6.8.2009 3:48pm
rick.felt:
Saying it's OK to out someone because they called you a name is like justifying a road rage shooting because you thought another driver was acting discourteously.

Exhibit "A" for the proposition that arguing by analogy is usually a terrible idea.
6.8.2009 3:49pm
Blue:
Snapphappy, it may not be in 15 months but I agree with you that will happen--because those comments will give an unfiltered view into what they really believe. It'll be the "Nanny Problem" of the 2010s.
6.8.2009 3:51pm
rick.felt:
It's the internet! Harsh, even unfair, criticism and name calling is par for the course.

You put something on the internet, and you run the risk of someone figuring out that it's you. There's no such thing as perfect anonymity. From time to time I've had to change the way I've phrased something online so that it wouldn't appear word-for-word the same as something I said offline (and vice-versa). Still, given that my anonymous name here gives clues about my location, gender, age, and radio listening habits, I know that my cover could be blown.

Is it unfair that someone might reveal who I am? Perhaps. But you just told me that it's unreasonable for me to expect fairness on the internet. So wasn't it unreasonable for Blevins to expect the internet to be fair to him?
6.8.2009 3:56pm
Eric Baker:
It's the internet! Harsh, even unfair, criticism and name calling is par for the course. Outing someone can cause real world problems...


Some see a separation of the internet from "real life." I don't see it that way. Content is what separates real life from all else. I may pretend, be funny, be non-serous, be "not real" on the internet, but I can also be deadly serious (well, as deadly as anything involving text and pictures can be), on the internet.
6.8.2009 4:00pm
LTR:
Blevins got what he deserved. He was going after Whelan personally while hiding his own identity, and that's just lame. It's not Whelan's writing he was going after, he attacked him on character grounds too.
6.8.2009 4:08pm
byomtov (mail):
Is it unfair that someone might reveal who I am? Perhaps. But you just told me that it's unreasonable for me to expect fairness on the internet. So wasn't it unreasonable for Blevins to expect the internet to be fair to him?

It might indeed be unreasonable to expect the Internet to be fair. But that doesn't justify unfair behavior. It's the same analogy several others have made. It's unreasonable, some places, to leave your doors unlocked and expect not to be burgled. But the burglar is still a criminal. Saying, "But Your Honor, the door was unlocked, so iI didn't do anything wrong," will not get him very far in court. IANAL and I know that.
6.8.2009 4:10pm
MAM:
So what if he attacked his character, which I don't believe he did? What does that have to do with Whelan's actions?

I'm more concerned about NRO. Is that how NRO wants to deal with commenters it doesn't like?
6.8.2009 4:13pm
rick.felt:
It might indeed be unreasonable to expect the Internet to be fair. But that doesn't justify unfair behavior.

You can't look at Whelan in isolation. What justifies Whelan is not that the internet is a rough-and-tumble place, but that Blevins did something unfair to Whelan first, by attacking him from an anonymous position.

I propose a simple rule: if you anonymously engage a non-anonymous person in debate, you lose the right to complain when that person reveals your identity. Fair in all circumstances? No. However, it's definitely fair when the anonymous person is resorting to cheap shots, misrepresentations, and other attacks that portray the non-anonymous person in a bad light. But that's a tough call.

At least my proposed rule is predictable. You throw down with the anonymous, you lose your right to anonymity. No anonymous bloggers can say that they weren't warned.
6.8.2009 4:21pm
MAM:
Is not Whelan putting himself out to the public for all types of criticism? He has assumed the risk of people attacking him for all types of legitimate and illegitimate reasons. If you don't want people critcizing you personally, don't put it out there.

Whelan, OTOH, sought or at least received the identity of a critic who used a psuedonym. Whelan, did not attack the argument of the critic, he tried to personally destroy the critic. Whelan doth protest too much.

Sorry but that stinks and shows a lack of judgment.
6.8.2009 4:35pm
M N Ralph:
I

Is it unfair that someone might reveal who I am? Perhaps. But you just told me that it's unreasonable for me to expect fairness on the internet. So wasn't it unreasonable for Blevins to expect the internet to be fair to him?


I've made no assertion about whether it was reasonable or not for Blevins to expect Whelan to not act like a dick. In fact, since he's demonstrated his general dickishness before, it probably would be unreasonable to expect him to not so act (even though you might argue this was a new low of petty, vindictive behavior even for him). Regardless, Blevin's expectations are irrelevant to the issue of whether Whelan in fact acted like a dick, which you seem to concede is "perhaps" the case.
6.8.2009 4:39pm
dmv (www):
6.8.2009 4:43pm
ck:
There seems to be this idea that non-anonymous bloggers are at some kind of disadvantage versus anonymous bloggers. But posting under your real name has a benefit as well as a cost: the benefit of credibility deriving from your public record, as Whelan had with conservatives, and Publius had (initially) with no one. Of course if you use your record to bolster your readership, it becomes fair game to be scrutinized for hypocrisy, etc. Anonymous bloggers have to build credibility from their posts alone.
6.8.2009 4:46pm
Joe Tillotsen:
I propose a simple rule...


I've been an interested student of computer mediated communication for quite some years now. I've long had an interest in emergent properties of scale.

Still, I don't claim to be an expert. But allow me to propose an even simpler rule:

Out of the roughly six billion people on the planet today, we now estimate that over a billion (1E9) of them have internet access of one form or another.

Most of those people will ignore any rule you make up.
6.8.2009 4:47pm
rick.felt:
Most of those people will ignore any rule you make up.

The subset of individuals who care about fair play in during bloggy slapfights in American politics is orders of magnitude smaller. It's much easier for conventions of polite/ethical behavior to develop within this subset. "Hat-tip when you get information from another blogger" and "no sockpuppetry" are two examples.

If the 100,000 (?) who care adopt these rules, we don't need the other 999,900,000 to sign on.
6.8.2009 4:55pm
byomtov (mail):
Blevins did something unfair to Whelan first, by attacking him from an anonymous position.

Whether criticism is fair or unfair tends to be matter of opinion. Lots of people think they are attacked "unfairly." I bet a substantial share of Internet writers who are attacked consider the attacks "unfair." Nor is anonymous criticism (and this wasn't anonymous) inherently unfair. If someone writes, "Girardi is a moron for sacrificing," the fairness of that doesn't depend on whether the writer is anonymous or not.

Anyway, attacks, fair or not, can be responded to. It's easy. Whelan could have gone to Obsidian wings and commented freely and critically on publius' posts. He didn't do that. (And doesn't giving the subject of the criticism a fair chance to respond go a long way towards making things fair?)

Note three things:

First, fair or not, publius' posts revealed nothing that Whelan might have wanted to keep secret. Whelan may have felt insulted, but his privacy was not breached. Personal details were not revealed, his address was not published, etc. The attack was on his writings, with the additional claim that someone of Whelan's background should know better.

Second, the outing does nothing to refute publius' claims. It's nothing but "nyah, nyah, nyah." It doesn't strengthen Whelan's arguments about Sotomayor or anything else.

Third, as others have said repeatedly, there is a difference between writing anonymously andusing a pseudonym. Publius posts often under that name. It is not only easy to comment on his posts, it is easy to refer to him: "This 'publius' who posts at Osidian Wings totally misses my point." Let Whelan write that and anyone can go read as much of publius' work as they want. That's not anonymity.
6.8.2009 5:07pm
Anderson (mail):
Hiding liberal opinions in academia?

Stereotypes about "academia" may not apply terribly much to law schools in south Texas.

I also note that one reason Publius gave for preserving pseudonymity was to prevent his conservative students from knowing his politics in advance, and thus to avoid their feeling restricted in expressing their own points of view.

I would have thought that this would be a praiseworthy motive around here, but perhaps not.
6.8.2009 5:09pm
Lucky Corny:
I use a variety of pseudonyms when I blog, mainly because I have a close relation who takes offense at my political opinions.

However, I try to avoid too much snark in my posts. If someone takes potshots at me, I am more likely to stop posting and go away. I am happiest when I can get someone who usually disagrees with me to accept one of my points (and the best way to do that is to accept some of their points).
6.8.2009 5:09pm
MikeS (mail):
Whelan had a paid gig at NRO, which he presumably got because he was expected to produced NRO-friendly posts. Likewise, he works at a right-wing think tank. Post that attack Sotomayor (or whomever Obama nominated) further both of these careers.

Publius blogs for free and thus can say pretty much whatever he thinks.

Explain to me again why Whalen Party-Line Posts(TM) show more integrity than pseudonymous ones.
6.8.2009 5:12pm
Blue:

Whelan had a paid gig at NRO, which he presumably got because he was expected to produced NRO-friendly posts. Likewise, he works at a right-wing think tank. Post that attack Sotomayor (or whomever Obama nominated) further both of these careers.


Irony not a strong point for you, is it?
6.8.2009 5:22pm
lucia (mail) (www):

What's the legitimate purpose of outing someone who has been criticizing your views?


If criticizing your views is the only issue, there is probably no purpose legitimate or otherwise to out anyone.

But if the form of the criticism is particularly rude, nasty, snide or childish, outing them means that at least some readers will judge the honest to goodness person behind the pseudonym. This puts them on the same footing as the non-pseudonymous blogger.

Some pseudonymous bloggers seem to use the pseudonym for this reason, though, of course, we can't be sure.

Putting a rival blogger on an equal footing to oneself may or may not seem like a legitimate reasons to unmask someone. But I think those who do blog under pseudonymns should be aware that bad behavior may well give others the incentive to unmask them.

Of course, those who unmask another blogger might also risk people frowning on that too. That said, since they aren't anonymous, they know they can't shield themselves from others forming opinions.

For what it's worth: I suspect the reason no one blew Jonathan Adler's cover is that Juan Non-Volokh behaved well. Those law professors who wish to be anonymous might do well to imitate Juan.
6.8.2009 5:47pm
geokstr (mail):

Steve H:
I would think that the ideas Publius posted on Obsidian Wings could and should be evaluated on their own merits, regardless of whether the speaker is a bartender in Oregon or a professor in Texas.

Absolutely, just like the arguments of researchers on things like Anthropogenic Global Warming should be evaluated on their own merits, regardless of whether the speaker or his think tank or university received a grant from say, an Al Gore company, or, maybe even Exxon, right?
6.8.2009 5:48pm
Cato The Elder (mail):

Absolutely, just like the arguments of researchers on things like Anthropogenic Global Warming should be evaluated on their own merits, regardless of whether the speaker or his think tank or university received a grant from say, an Al Gore company, or, maybe even Exxon, right?

According to the calculations that I have just received from my RASE (Reciprocal Action Size Estimator) models, Steve H, you are hereby cleared to attack geokstr with no more than 0.5 units of equivalent snark.

Get to it, my man.
6.8.2009 5:58pm
PC:
Blevins got what he deserved. He was going after Whelan personally while hiding his own identity, and that's just lame. It's not Whelan's writing he was going after, he attacked him on character grounds too.

Plublius questioned Whelan's character, Whelan responded with questionable character. Awesome.
6.8.2009 5:59pm
rick.felt:
If criticizing your views is the only issue, there is probably no purpose legitimate or otherwise to out anyone.

The issue for many seems to turn on whether the anonymous blogger is abusing anonymity. There would be less disagreement on the outing issue if we could all agree that Blevins was/wasn't abusing anonymity. But left and right will rarely agree on that. How many times have we seen an argument where one side thinks the other side has gotten personal or hurled insults, and that side disagrees? That's why I advocate a bright-line rule: mix it up with the non-anonymous, forfeit your right to anonymity.

Perfect rule? No. But at least it can be applied fairly. The alternative - outing is only okay when the anonymous blogger crosses the line - is unworkable because we'll never agree on where the line is or if it has been crossed.

Anyway, someday the shoe will be on the other foot, and I look forward to the inevitable backtracking and cries of "this is different!!!"
6.8.2009 6:11pm
ShelbyC:

What's the legitimate purpose of outing someone who has been criticizing your views?


Huh. I guess, if he's been saying particularly nasty things that he probably wouldn't say if he wasn't anonymous, a legitimate purpose would be to get him to stop.
6.8.2009 6:19pm
Steve H (mail):

Absolutely, just like the arguments of researchers on things like Anthropogenic Global Warming should be evaluated on their own merits, regardless of whether the speaker or his think tank or university received a grant from say, an Al Gore company, or, maybe even Exxon, right?


I'm pretty sure I acknowledged that Publius's identity would be relevant if he were in a position to benefit directly from his posting.

There's also a huge difference between presenting opinions and presenting facts that we really have no way of independently veryifying. A global warming report purports to be presenting facts that we have no way of independently assessing, and as such we have to rely on the honesty and integrity of the people writing the report.

Political/policy opinions can be evaluated on their own merits, and to the extent they rely on facts, those facts are usually provided via links that we can follow to independently verify.

Cato, I don't think I have much use for my 0.5 units of snark. Can I put them up for auction under our cap-and-trade snark system?
6.8.2009 6:23pm
MAM:
To stop someone from saying nasty things is hardly a valid reason to out someone. First, the person's use of a fake name already diminishes that person's validity as far as questioning s/one's character. Two, exposing that person's name seems awfully incongruent to being nasty, unless you believe readers can't discern valid and invalid remarks.

Either way, Whelan's actions seem highly unwarranted. He's either lacks judgment or believes his readers are not very smart.
6.8.2009 6:28pm
LongCat:
How hard is it to be aware that you could be outed and to post accordingly? If he really thought blogging could endanger his livelihood or family life, there's no need to do it. If blogging is so important to him, he should assume the career risk, only make posts he wouldn't be ashamed to say publicly or find a career that won't impact his hobbies.

Whelan absolutely acted childish and spiteful, but if you want people to read about your views on the internets, you need to be prepared for discourteous behavior.
6.8.2009 6:36pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
I highly suggest everyone go check out each of MAM's comments on this thread and form your own opinion about whether he's just here to cause trouble. He's posted pretty much the same inane "Aren't you all shocked? Isn't NRO awful?" comment several times without any attempt to engage a discussion.

This is the sort of "drive-by" commenter that we could do without.
6.8.2009 7:08pm
Bad (mail) (www):
"What justifies Whelan is not that the internet is a rough-and-tumble place, but that Blevins did something unfair to Whelan first, by attacking him from an anonymous position. "

I don't see how that was in any way unfair. What does the persons job and identity have to do with what he's arguing? Whelan is perfectly capable of refuting arguments and even calling someone an ass. But people have lots of legitimate reasons to stay pseudonymous that have little to do with whether or not they are going to stand by their opinions or face criticism. Clearly Blevin was prepared to maintain a consistent online identity that could be called to account, and as far as I can tell, that's perfectly fine.

In no way does that justify Whelan's tantrum.
6.8.2009 7:16pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
The AutoAdmit plaintiffs show there's a natural human desire to out anonymous commenters who are talking smack about you. They can hurt your reputation and your career while giving you no reoourse.

On the other hand, should other people take anonymous comments about someone else at face value? When I go into a restroom, should I really believe that calling Susie at 555-1498 will lead to a good time?

On the internet, a reasoned criticism of something you wrote either has merit or it does not, irrespective of its source. Use it as a means of improving your work.

If, however, the criticism is meritless or merely namecalling, I would ignore it.
6.8.2009 7:17pm
MarkField (mail):

There seems to be this idea that non-anonymous bloggers are at some kind of disadvantage versus anonymous bloggers.


I think pseudonymity on the internet arises out of a simple fact: nobody has any easy way to confirm that your posting name is your real name. I post under what is, in fact, my own name, but nobody has any way to know that and I could easily lie about it.

Come to think of it, how do we know that the real Ed Whelan is the one actually posting under that name?
6.8.2009 7:20pm
ArthurKirkland:

how do we know that the real Ed Whelan is the one actually posting under that name?


Fine point. There have been several recent instances in which public figures have disclaimed same-named Twitter accounts. It could be a generic reflexive right-wing ideologue posting with Mr. Whelan's name. Or, it could be one of Mr. Whelan's enemies, trying to make Mr. Whelan look foolish by littering the intertubes with extremist rants.
6.8.2009 7:55pm
Mahan Atma (mail):
"When I go into a restroom, should I really believe that calling Susie at 555-1498 will lead to a good time?"


Having called Susie, I can tell you it will.
6.8.2009 8:04pm
Bad (mail) (www):
"How hard is it to be aware that you could be outed and to post accordingly? If he really thought blogging could endanger his livelihood or family life, there's no need to do it. If blogging is so important to him, he should assume the career risk, only make posts he wouldn't be ashamed to say publicly or find a career that won't impact his hobbies. "

I don't think Blevin believed it could never happen and that he was safe from those sorts of troubles. I think he's just rightly calling Whelan out on stooping so low.
6.8.2009 8:34pm
Alan Jeffries (mail):
I think most of these comments and posts largely miss the point. Posting on the interwebs is largely a pseydononymous undertaking unless you voluntarily choose to name yourself. So Whelan, he's got a column, for which he's paid. Publius does not have a column and is not paid. One is engaged in a commercial venture; the other, in an intellectual one (I'm not making a value judgment here). The point is that Publius's identity has nothing to do with his pointed comments towards Publius. Publius could be a third grader; a high school political science geek; a college debater; a law school law review editor; or a law school professor. If Publius is making points that are worthy of response (as Mr. Whelan thought they were), it doesn't matter who Publius is. This isn't the age of challenge and duels where we call our opponents to the carpet for the sake of raw violence or ridicule. This is the Internet and Whelan apparently has lost sight of his medium. If Publius is making farfetched points that are worthy of - say - a college debater unlearned in the law - then why would Whelan even choose to respond? He was obviously engaged, lest he respond to the village idiot who decries all but is only legitimized if he's responded to.

So outing him can be seen as nothing other than a classic low blow or more accurately a sucker punch; a tactic worthy of the Right Wing hitman that Publius claims Whelan is (I express no views as to whether that's true; the point is that Whelan acts in a way to perpetuate it and in no way to undermine it); all at the same time legitimizing someone who he thinks, apparently, is a complete idiot. Whlean is a very smart guy but the irony is that instead of taking him on his own right, he resorted to utter tomfoolery which has the effect of completely obliterating what might otherwise be worthwhile points from Publius.
6.8.2009 8:43pm
Alan Jeffries (mail):
That last sentence should read "worthwhile points from Whelan." And in the first para, "pointed comments towards Whelan."

Cheers.
6.8.2009 8:50pm
Doctor Science (www):
Count me among those befuddled by the apparent widespread confusion between "pseudonymity" and "anonymity". I am extra-befuddled by Mr. Volokh's conflation of the two, given Jonathan Alter's post here yesterday discussing their crucial differences. As he said, A pseudonym operates like a brand name, and the value of the brand is, at least in part, a function of how the pseudonymous blogger acts over time.

Actual anonymous blogging is extremely rare -- I describe one example here, mostly to illustrate how nothing current in the political blogosphere qualifies. Why, then, are so many people who are otherwise careful with language saying publius was blogging "anonymously"?
6.8.2009 8:52pm
PC:
I think he's just rightly calling Whelan out on stooping so low.

Disclaimer: You should probably be aware of all internet traditions before reading the following statement.

Whelan dropped docs on Publius. This is normally the behavior of /b/tards, or other internet detectives, so Whelan can hold himself up in their esteemed company. Was Whelan doing it for the lulz or was he being an internet tough guy? Since I doubt Whelan has the skills of an internet detective and has no idea what lulz are, he was probably playing the role of internet tough guy. inb4 personal army.
6.8.2009 8:55pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
PC: I understood every word, and I feel dirty inside.

:(
6.8.2009 9:24pm
Leo Marvin (mail):
Even if publius had a cause of action and damages, he'd be foolish to sue. As of today, he's the winner and Whelen's the loser. Why rock that boat?
6.8.2009 10:26pm
Chris Fotos:
Wow. Whelan just apologized.

right here

I blogged with a pseudeonym, so obviously I support the practice and am not a fan of outing except in cases far more extreme than this one.
6.8.2009 10:46pm
frankcross (mail):
Ok, that's admirable. Such apologies are rare.

Do his defenders believe he was wrong to apologize. Will they now attack him?
6.8.2009 10:55pm
ArthurKirkland:
Providing the apology is to Mr. Whelan's credit.

Accepting it will be to Mr. Blevins' credit.
6.8.2009 11:22pm
Anderson (mail):
Wow, Whelan just issued a rote apology that smacks of having been advised to do so by someone connected to his paycheck.

"I have been uncharitable in my conduct." I can just hear the tears hitting the keyboard as he typed.
6.8.2009 11:22pm
Desiderius:
Anderson,

"I also note that one reason Publius gave for preserving pseudonymity was to prevent his conservative students from knowing his politics in advance, and thus to avoid their feeling restricted in expressing their own points of view."

That is indeed an admirable sentiment, but I doubt it was much of mystery to them in any case. Yes, even in South Texas. The march through the institutions is pretty much universal at this point. It's your world, we're just living in it.
6.8.2009 11:27pm
Desiderius:
"'I have been uncharitable in my conduct.' I can just hear the tears hitting the keyboard as he typed."

So its to be uncharity all around, evidently. I'd say that the last line has the ring of some true regret.

Frankcross,

"Ok, that's admirable. Such apologies are rare."

Indeed.

"Do his defenders believe he was wrong to apologize. Will they now attack him?"

Let's watch. And take note.
6.8.2009 11:29pm
lucia (mail) (www):
Why, then, are so many people who are otherwise careful with language saying publius was blogging "anonymously

Publius was both a pseudonymn and the actual person writing was unknown. Using a pseudonym and being anonymous is not an either/or proposition. Blevins is free to continue to write as Publius. He will no longer be anonymous, but will be still be using a Pseudonym.
6.8.2009 11:52pm
NickM (mail) (www):
Exposing the person behind the pseudonym allows everyone to see whether the pseudonym is being used to conceal hypocrisy in argument.

Nick
6.8.2009 11:55pm
PC:
Anderson, I think that's unfair. Whelan made the apology and it should be considered in good faith.
6.9.2009 2:28am
Doctor Science (www):
lucia:

Thank you for explaining, I now see what you (and possibly others) mean. A British e-friend also pointed out to me that in British newspapers one form of political commentary is as part of a "brand":
the pseudonyms tend to belong to groups of commentators, each of whom are anonymous (since you don't know who is writing on a particular day). In that way UK political columns carry on for decades, often long after the originators have died or moved on. Therefore when I see a 'brand'identity I don't automatically assume it's an identifiable individual. The political paper SchhNews for instance is entirely group written. I cannot identify which member of the collective is writing behind any of the 'names'.
I, on the other hand, am used to the distinction between unsigned or truly anonymous comments, and pseudonymous comments that adhere to one individual. There there's also Anonymous, an anarchic 'brand' in which the members do not even know who the other members are.
6.9.2009 7:03am
rick.felt:
Do his defenders believe he was wrong to apologize. Will they now attack him?

I can only speak for myself:

Yes; no.

I think Whelan missed an opportunity to help establish a norm that I would like to see: attacking the non-anonymous from an anonymous position is bad form, and if you do it you don't deserve anonymity.

Oh well. If Whelan doesn't want to die on this hill, I can't really expect him to.
6.9.2009 8:52am
Anderson (mail):
Well, Publius has now accepted Whelan's apology, and I see no reason to wax more indignant than the injured party cares to.
6.9.2009 10:42am
Cecil Moon (mail):
Sorry, I still see anonymous carping blog posts and comments as extreme cowardice. I do regret seeing so many "legals" defending the masked marauders.

Cecil L. Moon -- yes, it is genuine!
6.9.2009 11:10pm

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