Outing Publius

Publius, Steve, and others have said most of what needs saying on the topic of outing bloggers. However, I did want to address this little gem from Ed Whelan:

“Law professor John Blevins (aka publius) and others seem to assume that I owed some sort of obligation to Blevins not to expose his pseudonymous blogging. I find this assumption baffling. A blogger may choose to blog under a pseudonym for any of various self-serving reasons, from the compelling (e.g., genuine concerns about personal safety) to the respectable to the base. But setting aside the extraordinary circumstances in which the reason to use a pseudonym would be compelling, I don’t see why anyone else has any obligation to respect the blogger’s self-serving decision. And I certainly don’t see why someone who has been smeared by the blogger and frequently had his positions and arguments misrepresented should be expected to do so.

Blevins desired to be unaccountable — irresponsible — for the views he set forth in the blogosphere. He wanted to present one face to his family, friends, and colleagues and another to the blogosphere. That’s understandable but hardly deserving of respect. If he wanted to avoid the risk of being associated publicly with his views, he shouldn’t have blogged. It’s very strange that angry lefties are calling me childish (and much worse) when it’s Blevins who was trying to avoid responsibility for his blogging.”

Minor point first: “unaccountable” does not mean “irresponsible”. You act irresponsibly when you do things that a responsible person would not do, whether you do them in propria persona or pseudonymously. You act unaccountably when there is no way to call you to account. Pseudonymous blogging is not necessarily either of these things: a pseudonymous blogger can be completely responsible, and can be held to account since s/he can be criticized, ridiculed, etc. under her pseudonym.

More importantly: in thinking about this issue, it’s important to separate three distinct questions:

(1) Should people blog under pseudonyms?

(2) If someone blogs under a pseudonym, should s/he expect not to be outed?

(3) If you find out the real name of a pseudonymous blogger, should you reveal it?

Personally, I think that the answers to these questions are: (1) if they want to; (2) not if s/he has decent circulation, and (3) not absent a compelling reason. But one can give all sorts of different answers to these questions. For instance, you can think that people ought not to blog under pseudonyms, and should expect to be outed if they do, but also think that you, personally, ought not to reveal a pseudonymous blogger’s name if you learn it. (Compare: it would be dumb to leave your house unlocked, at least in a city, and a person who does so should not expect that she will not be robbed, but it does not follow that you should just up and burglarize that person’s house absent a good reason. If you did, it would be morally obtuse to say: well, what did you expect?)

I think there is a presumption that people should be able to decide for themselves what facts about themselves to reveal; and that decent people should respect this, absent some compelling reason not to. Of course, there are compelling reasons: if it turned out that an anonymous blogger on a white supremacist site was in fact the person in charge of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, that would be worth knowing. But absent some such reason, I think that people’s own decisions about what to reveal should be respected.

Thus, if I saw Whelan coming out of a DVD rental store with pornography, or found out by chance that he was HIV positive, I would think it wrong to publish those facts unless there was some very compelling reason to do so. Likewise, I would not publish his address and then, when he protested, write that he obviously wanted to avoid responsibility.

This is especially true when you do not know why someone has decided to keep something private. Whelan seems to acknowledge that there are situations in which someone might have good reasons for writing under a pseudonym:

“But setting aside the extraordinary circumstances in which the reason to use a pseudonym would be compelling, I don’t see why anyone else has any obligation to respect the blogger’s self-serving decision.”

By outing someone, you are deciding, on that person’s behalf, to incur whatever consequences outing that person might have. If you don’t know whether or not the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ Whelan mentions obtain, you ought to err on the side of caution, absent a strong reason for outing the person in question.

Whelan did not know that no such circumstances obtained. On the contrary: publius wrote him an email saying that he blogged under a pseudonym “for a variety of private, family, and professional reasons”. Those could easily include reasons that, by any reasonable standard, would justify the use of a pseudonym. But Whelan did not write back asking for further clarification. He just arrogated to himself the right to decide whether or not publius’ name would be public, without having any idea at all what the consequences might be, and, apparently, without caring.

What Whelan did added nothing to his or anyone else’s arguments about the law. He had no reason to do this, other than pique. He outed publius as a law professor, but he also outed himself as a petulant bully. I hope he likes the publicity.

PS: For Ed Whelan: Don’t bother trying to out me. It’s already been done.

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