Posted On: August 19, 2008

Anonymous Speech: Right or Wrong?

One of the hallmarks of the Internet age has been the increasing prevalence of anonymous speech.

No one can question that there is a First Amendment right to anonymous speech. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that point in the case of McIntyre v. Ohio. Anonymous speech serves many important purposes: people who are aware of government or corporate wrongdoing can alert the public to wrongdoing anonymously in situations where they can’t use their real name.

Neither the government nor the courts should be in the business of regulating speech, and the marketplace of ideas is big enough to include anonymous speech under certain circumstances. And the Internet is certainly a forum for uninhibited and impassioned speech. But not everything that legally can be said should be said, and in most cases a writer’s credibility is higher when they’re willing to put their name behind what they say. So anonymous speech is alive and well – but anonymous or not, it doesn’t hurt to think before posting.

But a small number of online commentators post racist, homophobic, sexist and mean-spirited comments and hide behind the cloak of anonymity given to them as online commentators, as one editor has said. The editor wrote: “We’re trying to balance people’s right to free speech with the responsibility not to be slanderous, libelous, sexist, racist or just plain mean.”

Posted On: August 7, 2008

California Ruling Allowing Disclosure of Public Employee Salaries Keeps on Giving

Last year's California Supreme Court ruling mandating disclosure of public employee salaries is the gift that keeps on giving to the public.

Every day, some newspaper throughout the state does a story reporting on some city which can't manage its budget, or some public employee who appears to be making more money than they should because of nepotism or cronyism. Transparency is vital to allow the public to at least see what's happening and agitate for change.

Some (but not all) powerful public employee unions, including those representing police and prison guards, waged a long fight recently to keep named public employee salaries under wraps. That fight ended last August when the California Supreme Court, in a lawsuit brought by the Contra Costa Times, held that public employee salaries are public records. The court held that disclosure of public employee salaries is necessary to guard against instances of nepotism, cronyism and inefficiency. The Court also brushed aside claims by police that their salaries couldn't be disclosed because of separate laws governing disclosure of police records.

The Court's ruling (full disclosure: I represented the Contra Costa Times in the case) pays daily dividends to the public. California has a multi-billion dollar deficit, and one of its cities, Vallejo, recently faced bankruptcy because of police and fire pay. There are many hard-working aunderpaid public employees out there, but there are also many instances of nepotism and out-of-control overtime. In the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, people in an open society don't demand infallibility from their government, but it's difficult for them to accept what they can't observe. Last year's public employee salary ruling from California's high court at least lets the public see who earns what.