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Pseudonymity, the Founding Era, and the nature of attacks

Regarding the discussion over pseudonym-outing, Matthew Franck at NRO points to a very good rationale for why Madison's use of the pseudonym Publius mattered significantly to the young, Southern politician in discussing the issue of slavery.

I do think it's worth noting that the political leaders of the Founding Era adopted pseudonyms in significant part because the "cloak" was one actually encouraged by the "customary" ethos of the time, "behind which nearly every office-holding polemicist retreated":

Although the rules of republican discourse permitted public servants to promote ideas, this prevailing public etiquette did not allow them to promote themselves. As a result, charges of demagoguery could fall on those who signed their names to political publications . . . .
Robert M.S. McDonald, The Hamiltonian Invention of Thomas Jefferson, in The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton 57 (2006).

The pseudonymous writings of the time also of course varied from the august (as witnessed in the Federalist papers) to the inflammatory (as seen in Hamilton's attacks, as "An American" or Catullus, on Thomas Jefferson--who himself of course rather openly embraced inflammatory attacks on Hamilton under the pen of his patron Philip Freneau in the National Gazette).

So too do modern communications vary widely, on blogs or otherwise. Although Brian Leiter took obvious offense to Jonathan Adler's posts (here and here), it's hard for me to see how Jonathan actually insulted Brian personally, as opposed to his ideas. In contrast, John Blevins essentially called Ed Whelan a liar by suggesting that he "enjoys playing the role of know-nothing demagogue" and crediting a description of Ed as a "legal hitman." In other words, Blevins was accusing Whelan of disingenuously advancing arguments he knew to be false merely to provide cover for "the right wing echo chamber." That seems to me a pretty serious assault on Ed's integrity that goes beyond merely attacking his argument (which I also criticized, here) or even the common name-calling snarks on an opponent's intelligence, etc.

None of which is to say that I myself would have chosen to "out" Blevins, or necessarily agree with it. I tend to agree with Walter that there is substantial value in anonymous speech and to disagree with Michael that it is "illegitimate . . . unless there is a force majeure involved." But Glenn Reynolds is also correct that "if you appoint yourself someone's anonymous blogging nemesis, you can probably expect to be outed." Glass houses, stones, and all that.

Update: Eugene Volokh has typically thoughtful commentary here. I take no position on how law school tenure committees should function, a question on which Michael and Eugene are in a far better position to opine than am I. But I do strongly agree with Eugene that outing a pseudonymous blogger shouldn't be tortious.



Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.