The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged the Department of Education today to protect university students’ right to speak anonymously online, warning that curtailing anonymous speech as part of anti-harassment regulations would not only violate the Constitution but also jeopardize important on-campus activism.
“Battling gender and racial harassment and threats on college campuses is vitally important,” said EFF Legal Director Corynne McSherry. “But some are calling for blanket bans on the use of platforms that allow anonymous comments, and that’s a counterproductive strategy. Online anonymity is crucial for students who fear retaliation for their political and social commentary. It helps many people avoid being targets of harassment in the first place.”
EFF’s letter to the Department of Education comes after a number of groups pressed for new federal guidelines for fighting online harassment. EFF agrees with the majority of the recommendations, including ensuring prompt reporting and investigation of all reports of harassment, and disciplining and/or prosecuting perpetrators. However, preemptively removing access to anonymous online speech platforms violates all students’ First Amendment rights—threatening projects like the USG Girl Mafia at the University of Southern California, where students anonymously map locations of assault reports on campus. Anonymity was also essential for student activists at Guilford College in North Carolina, who used an online form to collect anonymous testimonials about racial violence from those who felt unsafe revealing their identities.
Additionally, online speech bans are problematic because any technical restriction—like blocking on-campus access through the university’s wireless network, or limiting where students can access particular mobile applications or websites—will not prevent any student from going off-campus or joining another wireless network to comment anonymously.
“The Internet has an unmatched ability to help groups of people organize and communicate and be a force for positive social change,” said EFF Frank Stanton Legal Fellow Aaron Mackey. “Taking away choices for anonymous speech will curtail these activities without meaningfully preventing illegal harassment and threats. We urge the Department of Education to find solutions that protect all students.”
For the full letter to the Department of Education: