In the Nasher Fight, the Morning News Has a Double Standard

We remember what a conversation is, right? More than one voice talking? For the sake of conversation, allow me, if you will, to be the other voice opposed to the unified one-note civic chorale calling for the public hanging of public relations man Mike Snyder, who set up some fake Facebook accounts so he could comment under pseudonyms on blogs on behalf of a client.

To help an attorney representing a downtown condo tower, Snyder created the accounts under false names and then used the accounts to register himself as a commenter on blogs at The Dallas Morning News and at D Magazine, a local publication.

Museum Tower has been locked in a fierce dispute with the Nasher Sculpture Garden over the Nasher's complaint that reflected light from Museum Tower's glass skin is wrecking the Nasher's galleries. On this issue the Dallas establishment has lined up as a monolith to shun Museum Tower, its owners and anyone who speaks for it, just as the establishment in Dallas has lined up over issues from the JFK assassination 50th anniversary to the Inland Port project.

Every story, every column, every blog and every tweet from The Dallas Morning News will sing the same song and espouse the same point of view. Museum Tower must be shunned. As always, the main and most powerful argument is simply that. They are shunned. That is all we need to know, because then we know that if we even listen to them, we will be shunned, too.

In fighting against the shunners, why did Snyder need to post comments with fake accounts? He wouldn't talk to me about it on the record, so I'm left to attack the question more generically. First of all, is there something intrinsically wrong, morally or ethically, with anonymous speech or its trickier cousin, pseudonymous speech, in which the speaker assumes a fake name to further camouflage his own identity?

Hope not. Anonymous and pseudonymous speech are stitched deep in the American concept of free speech, as they were woven into the very origins of our nation. The first public discussion of freedom and liberty in the colonies began when the letters of "Cato" (not his real name) began to appear in American newspapers in 1720.

Tom Paine's pamphlet, "Common Sense," published in 1776, one of the most important sources of the popular concept of American liberty, did not include anywhere on its pages the name Thomas Paine. It was signed "An Englishman."

From the beginning of our nation, American courts and especially the Supreme Court have protected anonymous and pseudonymous speech as essential to the preservation of liberty. The idea has always been that you should be able to challenge the legitimacy of the crown — or even say the king's a fool — and not pay with your head, your livelihood or your freedom.

Of course there are limits on anonymous speech, but they are the same limits imposed on named speech. You can't libel another person or infringe on his copyright or defraud him of money anonymously any more than you could get away with it by giving your right name. But the courts have always held that real damage to a person or to the law is the test for forcing an anonymous person to be named. Not liking what the person has to say is never the test. American law specifically protects anonymous speech when it is attacked merely because someone disagrees with what is said.

Apparently The Dallas Morning News does not afford its readers and the people who access its web pages the same consideration. In fact, its promise to protect the personal information of readers is more like the apple the witch gave to Snow White.

Its original story revealing that Snyder had faked Facebook personae suffered a curious omission. Normally an investigative piece of this type explains exactly how a wrongdoer was caught by reporters, for a host of reasons. Instead, the News story suggested indirectly that reporters had sleuthed out Snyder's fake Facebook characters from emails produced by open records demands.

Snyder did tell me one thing on the record. I asked him if Morning News reporters had told him they had evidence from the newspaper's computer servers proving that he was the commenter who had accessed their blogs under fake names via Facebook. Snyder said, "Yes."

The privacy policy of A.H. Belo Corp., owner of the Morning News, gives the clear impression that Belo will do whatever it can to protect personal information of readers and web page visitors from violation by third parties. Under a heading, "What Safeguards Do We Put in Place to Protect Your Personal Information?" the policy states:

"A.H. BELO maintains reasonable safeguards to protect the security and integrity of the Personal Information that you provide to us. However, no security system is impenetrable and we cannot guarantee the security of our database. Nor can we guarantee that the information you supply won't be intercepted while being transmitted to us over the Internet." I would come away from that statement with the impression the newspaper will do what it can to protect me from prying eyes who might seek to learn or reveal my personal information.