/ Robert Rotstein / 4 am Tue, Jun 3 2014
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  • The role of Yik Yak in a free society

    The role of Yik Yak in a free society

    Attorney Robert Rotstein explains why the First Amendment protects anonymous speech, and why the value of anonymity apps like Yik Yak shouldn’t be dismissed.

    The horror stories are all over the Internet. Anonymous-social-media app Yik Yak tore a Connecticut high school apart. (Among the anonymous “gems”: “L. M. is affiliated with Al Qaeda.” “The cheer team couldn’t get uglier.” “K. is a slut.” “Nobody is taking H. to prom because nobody has a forklift.”) A high school in San Clemente, California was placed on lockdown after an anonymous bomb threat was posted on Yik Yak. Two teenagers in Mobile, Alabama were arrested after using the app to make threats about a campus shooting. Even an article in the Boston Globe titled “The Good News About Yik Yak” emphasized how teenagers are rejecting its dark side. 

    It goes without saying that threats of cyberbullying and violence are reprehensible and need to addressed quickly and effectively. But let’s not forget that anonymous speech -- and that’s what Yik Yak and similar apps like Whisper and Secret encourage -- plays an important role in a free society. The United States was founded on it. Thomas Paine, the “Father of the American Revolution,” signed his influential pamphlet Common Sense as simply “Written by an Englishman” lest his identity became known and he was hanged for treason. The authors of the Federalist Papers, the key documents used to interpret the Constitution, published under the pseudonym “Publius.” The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the right to speak anonymously, on and off the Internet, is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, a right that extends to the Internet. 

And, in fact, anonymity apps have brought positives along with the negatives. Not long ago, a post on Secret reported that Google had acquired the poster’s five-person company and had hired everyone but her. Later posts revealed that she was the only female at the company and had been there since it was founded. The thread became the talk of Silicon Valley, generating a lively debate about suppressed sexism in the start-up community. The poster’s ability to remain anonymous was key to this information coming out. She could stand up to power, speak without embarrassment, and avoid alienating potential employers who might take a dim view of her controversial statements. That’s exactly why the First Amendment protects anonymous speech, and that’s why the value of anonymity apps like Yik Yak shouldn’t be summarily dismissed.

    rd-small Robert Rotstein's novel Reckless Disregard is available from Amazon. Read an excerpt from the novel.

    The targets of anonymous speech often resort to the courts to try to unmask the speaker. The plaintiff will sue a fictitious “John Doe” and immediately serve a subpoena seeking to force the Internet service provider to give up the defendant’s name. In one typical case, an anonymous poster on a Yahoo! Finance message board took part in a heated debate about the company’s managers, including the aggrieved plaintiff. The defendant posted a message saying that a male executive had made a New Year’s resolution to perform oral sex on the plaintiff though she had “fat thighs, a fake medical degree, ‘queefs’ and ha[d] poor feminine hygiene.” The plaintiff sued and served a subpoena on Yahoo! seeking the poster’s identity. The court quashed the subpoena, concluding that the statement didn’t convey libelous facts, but instead was merely crude, satirical hyperbole uttered in the course of a heated online discussion. The outcome in this case was correct, but not inevitable. (As one commentator notes, most of these John Doe lawsuits are about censorship, not money). The point is that anonymous speech can be a good thing, and often there are powerful entities out there that want to stop it.

Even school students are entitled to some first amendment protection. For example, several years ago, a middle schooler was suspended after she used MySpace to post a crude, satirical faux-message from the principal portraying him as a pedophile. Citing the first amendment, a federal court overturned the suspension because the student’s conduct occurred off campus and hadn’t substantially disrupted school operations. Of course, threats of violence or disruptive speech on school property or during school activities will yield a different result, not to mention possible criminal prosecution. Yik Yak has cooperated with law enforcement officials in such cases (showing that anonymity online is far from absolute).

The tumult surrounding the misuse of anonymous-social media apps is understandable. But let’s not forget that these apps are tools that encourage speech, and like many tools, they can be used for both good and ill.

    [Image: Vincent Diamante. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.]


    Notable Replies

    1. The examples you choose are curiously unsympathetic. Anonymity protects much more than scurrilous ad-hominem remarks about the sexual proclivities of someone you don't like. Its real value is that it protects unpopular thought: a key point in a conformist society like ours. The ability to come forward anonymously and challenge what "everyone knows" is essential to society's self-examination. Without it, the challenge simply results in the torches and pitchforks being brought out and another victim being led to the pillory, if not the stake. 'Publius' of the Federalist Papers did not speak anonymously for fear of royal reprisal: the American Revolution was won. Rather, it was so that the ideas of Hamilton, Madison and Jay could be considered apart from their often volatile personalities.

      1. Not sure how anonymous the only woman at a company of five can be. But I guess I get your point.

      2. The author attempts to anticipate my one argument which is that students give up certain rights. Yeah, sometimes the authorities can power trip (or be seen to teenagers to be power tripping), but it is a given that kids don't have unlimited rights while in school. Mostly, this revolves around disruption. A student may have a free speech right to call their teach a bitch or an asshole, but that is disruptive and disturbs the others who are there to learn. Likewise, while the author mentions that YikYak has been disruptive, I don't think mere mention is good enough. I think it's pretty clear that YikYak has only one purpose at school and that is disruption. And that seeks to undermine the entire premise of the article which is, "Hey, guys - free speech is important even if it involves kids being jerks." Except it doesn't when it's being disruptive.

      I would also argue that, although it is a dangerous and extremely slippery slope, that there seems to be (based on reporting) a lot more teens that commit suicide over this bullshit than adults. Teens have brain issues going on that make them think that being called a (whatever pejorative) as a 16 year old will keep them from being awesome as a 30 year old. They almost literally aren't capable of conceiving of the future as some medical literature seems to have reported. And, therefore, I also think that this type of speech should have more consequences when directed at teens. Really, what purpose is served for freedom when someone is calling someone a slut merely because everyone's a teen and many teens are assholes? (By the way, I write this as someone who was mercilessly bullied throughout nearly all of his life until college)

    2. I may be wrong, but isn't hate speech actually allowed? Like the Neonazis or KKK that are allowed to have parades? I think free speech is not the same as consequence-free speech. See many people who have lost their jobs over speech.

      I still think YikYak has no place in school. There will always be bullies no matter what you do. There are always sociopaths, after all. Not that all bullies are sociopaths, but what I'm saying is that you can't root out all evil just by changing the environment.

      What's sad is that in my experience it's only ever been violence or the threat of violence that has stopped bullying. In elementary school I finally snapped and broke the nose of the kid who was bullying me for the whole school year. He never bullied me again. (I don't remember this, but my parents certainly do as they were called to the principal's office. My bullying was well-documented so there were no consequences for me) In middle school I had to write a letter to the principal saying I would go berserk on my bully if they didn't do something about it - after repeatedly not getting any help. The bully was moved to another class and we never interacted again. In high school, this guy thought I was gay (I'm VERY MUCH not, not that being gay would have made it right) and was picking on me for that. Eventually I threatened to beat the shit out of him and he stopped right away.

    3. I wouldn't recommend this. Sometimes you end up with a group of people beating the shit out of you because no one individual wants to take the chance that you might get the better of them. Injuring one of them just makes them more careful to make sure that they are in a group when dealing with you.

      (I don't know how survived school. I do know why I have an 'interesting' collection of mental illnesses though.)

    4. Rotstein seems to be avoiding an important point. Anonymity in general is valuable. Services that facilitate leaks and whistleblowers are valuable. Yik Yak in particular is pretty much purpose-built for nasty gossip, and offers very little redeeming social value in exchange.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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