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A good thing

August 19, 2009

The New York Supreme Court has struck a lovely blow against anonymous online harassment, finding that Google must release all identifying information for a blogger who filled his blog with derogatory, misogynistic, and offensive statements about model Liskula Cohen. That one cannot expect to hide behind an anonymous pseudonym to perpetrate harassment.

There are certainly interesting discussions to be had about anonymity and the internet, the ethics of writing without attaching your name, the right to the safety of anonymity, but this should not be one of the contentious ones. Still, and predictably, there’s plenty of blogging about this ruling that focuses on the “BUT MY FREE SPEECH!” (I’m not going to link to the drivel, you’ll find plenty if you Google the case), totally ignoring the possibility–as so often happens with hate speech–that maybe your right to say what you want should be constrained when you reach an act of verbal violence, such as this.

[Defense Attorney Anne] Salisbury suggested that Cohen is more interested in attracting publicity than restoring her reputation. She contended her client’s blog would have languished harmlessly in obscurity had Cohen not filed suit.
Hate speech cannot “languish harmlessly.” It sticks with you. It reached Cohen, and that’s the crime being investigated here. But it also may have reached other women who read it and were reminded that the internet–that little waves transmitting information–is not a safe place for them.

Jessica at Feministing reports on this too:

Most of the time, however, there isn’t any accountability – and the victims of online harassment and threats are left with no recourse except to live with it. I certainly know how that feels – having been the target of harassment ranging from bloggers calling me a slut from the way I looked in an innocuous picture, to rape and death threats in emails, to a website Photoshopping pictures of me to look pornographic. And let me tell you: that shit changes you. It changes your sense of safety, sense of self and any idealism you may have had about people being generally good.
Jessica reminds us that this is an issue that affects women more, and affects women differently. It mirrors so much of the harassment we face in our every day lives–men on the street who think they have some right to our attention, men in our classrooms and workplaces who think they have some right to silence us–in its lack of accountability, in how society fails to see it as a problem with the perpetrators, or really as a problem at all. We feel like we need to sit back and take it, because what else can we do if no one will stand with us?

Words have consequences. It is obvious that online harassers know this; it is obvious that they intend to hurt their targets. But words should have consequences for their utterers, too. In all places, not just in this case, people must be accountable for what they say. This is an issue wholly separate from freedom of speech; this is not about the “thought police” or punishing beliefs. This is about stating, clearly and unwaveringly, that when you use your first amendment rights to intentionally harm and marginalize a person or a group, you don’t get to hide in the shadows from the consequences of your choice.

And what’s more, this case ignites the hope that you don’t get to hide behind a computer screen either; that you don’t get to spend your day seeking out ways to harm and expecting no one to call it what it is: a crime. As Jessica says, this isn’t the end. But it’s a step in the right direction.

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