When former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley pitched a terrible (and likely unconstitutional) idea to force social media companies to verify all users and effectively ban anonymous accounts, she drew a sharp rebuke from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Haley’s proposal to ban anonymous speech online—similar to what China recently did—is dangerous and unconstitutional,” DeSantis posted on X (formerly Twitter). He pointed out that some of America’s founders, including The Federalist Papers’ authors Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison published their essays anonymously—part of a long tradition of anonymous speech in America.
In the week since those initial remarks, Haley has backpedaled a bit. She now admits that Americans have a First Amendment right to anonymous speech online but continues to support a crackdown on foreigners who “create anonymous accounts to spread chaos and anti-American filth.”
DeSantis’ campaign has kept the heat turned up. “No matter how she tries to spin it, Haley can’t take back her ‘Day One’ plan to have the government strip Americans of their First Amendment rights,” DeSantis campaign spokesman Bryan Griffin said last week.
The stake of this fight, in no small part, is the chance to be perceived as the second-place candidate in the Republican primary field, where former President Donald Trump still holds a wide lead. DeSantis has been slipping in the polls for months, while Haley has steadily climbed after several strong debate performances.
DeSantis is certainly right to take Haley to task over this terrible idea, and he’s probably right that doing so will help him regain some lost ground in the GOP primary race.
Still, the whole exchange creates a bit of an awkward situation for DeSantis, who is just a few months removed from making his own attacks on anonymous speech. During a livestreamed event in March, DeSantis criticized the media’s use of anonymous sources and suggested that the U.S. Supreme Court might be “receptive” to revisiting its landmark 1964 decision that raised the bar for defamation lawsuits filed by public figures.
Meanwhile, a bill introduced in the Florida Legislature earlier this year and backed by DeSantis aimed to make several changes to how Florida law handles defamation cases filed against news organizations. Among the changes was a provision telling courts to regard as false any content from anonymous sources, unless it could be proven true.
DeSantis even acknowledged that the bill, if passed into law, could have a chilling effect on reporting. “I do think it may cause people to not want to put out things that are false that are smearing somebody’s reputation. And you know, I think…people can make a judgment about how they view that,” DeSantis said in March, according to Florida Politics.
Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation, called the proposal “a brazen and blatantly unconstitutional attack on speech and press freedoms.” The bill died in a state House committee earlier this year, but DeSantis’ support for the bill sits uncomfortably beside his more recent criticisms of Haley’s attack on anonymous speech (to say nothing of his other attacks on free expression by the likes of drag queens and pro-Gaza protesters).
This shouldn’t be hard. Anonymous speech should be (and is) subject to the same constitutional protection as any other speech, whether it is something posted anonymously online or offered to a reporter. It’s understandable why public figures in positions of power might not like that—but the Constitution exists to limit the power of government, not as a balm for the thin skin of certain politicians.
Obviously, this is not in any way a defense of Haley, whose terrible free speech proposal has likely cost her whatever small bits of goodwill she’d engendered from libertarians with some important straight talk about the deficit. She should continue backtracking from her proposal to unmask anonymous accounts online—and probably ought to refresh herself with the constitution of the government that she’s campaigning to lead.
But DeSantis’ track record on free speech suggests his objections are more about political opportunism than principled concern for the rights of Americans to communicate freely. The First Amendment applies all the time, not just when you want to use it to bash a rival politician.
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