New York legislators propose bill to end anonymity in online comments

NEW YORK — A bill pending in the New York legislature would require website administrators, upon request of any viewer, to remove anonymous posts from a commenter who will not confirm their full name and home address.

The bill is being sponsored by Republican State Senator Thomas O’Mara (R,C-Big Flats) and Assemblyman Dean Murray (R,C-East Patchogue).

The bill will require contact information for the website administrator to be visible from any place someone can post comments for removal requests.

O’Mara sees a need for this bill because he believes anonymous quotes can lead to harm of the general public.

“There are a lot of comments put up anonymously under pseudonyms that often times are outrageous… or to be false,” O’Mara said. “The motivation is to provide some identity to an individual from just not going out and are making these, outrageous, false accusations under a pseudonym. They can be damaging personally, individually, it can be hurtful in a cyber-bullying context, but it also can apply to businesses as well. Or comments that are put up that may falsely make claims online… When it’s anonymous there’s no way to get at the false accuser.”

Viewers can request any anonymous post be taken down, regardless of rather it’s true or false, harmful or not harmful. Administrators are required to investigate the post, with no questions asked.

Murray came to O’Mara with the idea for the bill, asking him to sponsor it in the Senate, O’Mara said. O’Mara said that Murray had a business online that was a victim of these anonymous posts, although that was only of Murray’s motives in creating the bill.

Despite these intentions, O’Mara has received much criticism, most questioning if the bill violates First Amendment rights. O’Mara does not foresee this being a problem in passing the bill.

“I don’t believe our constitution gives us any right to be protected for anonymous accusations that we make,” O’Mara said. “We certainly have the right to say anything we want to be able to say, but to do it anonymously is a whole different matter I think.”

Others are not quite as confident in the bill’s constitutionality.

“It’s disappointing that any lawmaker would waste time introducing a bill that is so blatantly unconstitutional,” via email said Mark Caramanica, freedom of information director at The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “It is an attack on the editorial rights of website operators, ignores the well-established First Amendment right to speak anonymously and allows any speaker to be silenced simply because someone may not agree with or like what they have said.”

The bill will probably not be reviewed until the New York Senate’s next term in January 2013, O’Mara predicts. As of now, the agenda is full for the current term, which ends in mid June.

By Nikki McGee, SPLC staff writer