Foundation urges Dept. of Education to defend anonymous online speech

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has urged the Department of Education to defend college students’ right to use anonymous online platforms, warning that a restriction on anonymous speech would be a violation of the First Amendment.

In a letter to the Department of Education, EFF argues anonymous speech is protected under the Constitution and any attempt to undermine students’ access to anonymous platforms would “restrain speech protected by the First Amendment.”

The letter was written in response to a coalition of civil rights groups asking the Department of Education to demand stricter policing of anonymous platforms and limited on-campus access.

“EFF therefore respectfully requests that any future guidance issued by the Department uphold all of the civil and constitutional rights of those who attend colleges or universities, including both freedom from harassment and freedom of anonymous speech,” EFF wrote.

The foundation agreed with the many calls to increase investigations of online harassment and even suggested that student perpetrators should be more strictly disciplined. However, EFF pointed out that online anonymity is itself a way for students to avoid being harassed for their political or social views.

“Battling gender and racial harassment and threats on college campuses is vitally important,” the letter states. “But some are calling for blanket bans on the use of platforms that allow anonymous comments, and that’s a counterproductive strategy. Online anonymity is crucial for students who fear retaliation for their political and social commentary. It helps many people avoid being targets of harassment in the first place.”

EFF provided a few examples of how online anonymity has protected students on-campus and prevented sexual assault. At the University of Southern California, a project called “USC Girl Mafia” allows users to anonymously map locations of assault reports on campus. At other schools, such as Guilford College in North Carolina, student groups use anonymous online forms to collect testimonials about racial violence on campus. Anonymity, EFF argues, allows students to safely come forward in cases of sexual assault and racial violence.

In addition, EFF thinks the prospect of successfully limiting student access to applications and websites is unlikely. Most students, EFF argues, would go off-campus or simply join another wireless networks to post anonymous comments.

“Taking away choices for anonymous speech will curtail these activities without meaningfully preventing illegal harassment and threats,” the letter states. “We urge the Department of Education to find solutions that protect all students.”

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