But I honestly and respectfully cannot agree with you, President Tilghman, that “anonymous debate is no debate at all.”
Anonymity is crucial to our ability to raise debate, especially in a university setting. On your campus, anonymity has been used by LGBT students, religious students, sexual assault victims and other marginalized members of the Princeton community to honestly discuss their problems and raise concerns.
You say that anonymity “invites thoughtlessness, not to mention malice and spite.” Many would look at the ‘Prince’ comments and agree, declaring them unproductive or indeed harmful. While I don’t dispute that the ‘Prince’ comments section is often full of trolls, I do challenge the characterization of anonymity as a space for negativity.
Case in point: the overwhelming anonymous outpouring of support for the ‘Prince’ article “Living on ambiguity” written by an anonymous gay Princeton student. Without anonymity, would the same response have happened on a relatively closeted campus like ours? As someone who works actively with the Princeton LGBT community, I don’t think so. Not in the same scale or scope. The importance of these positive occurrences cannot be underestimated for the students who share their stories.
This is only one example of anonymity as a space for positive, encouraging feedback and representation of marginal identities at Princeton. But the fact is we have to defend these spaces of free speech regardless — both the good and the bad — because that’s the nature of our civil right as citizens and as students.
It is reasonable to disagree with my rather ideological position. It is reasonable to want to foster a more accountable, productive dialogue on campus. It is reasonable to wish that students “owned their words,” even though, as some commenters pointed out, the Honor Code may have been misleadingly invoked for a nonacademic space such as the ‘Prince.’
But it certainly is not reasonable to remove an entire mechanism, such as anonymity, because people abuse it to troll. Trolling is not yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
By removing anonymity from the ‘Prince’ comments, we may indeed curb harmful, unproductive comments. But we also discourage already marginalized people on campus from making their voices heard. I believe this is known as “throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
If the ‘Prince’ wants to adjust its current commenting policy, I propose two solutions:
1) The ‘Prince’ requires users to maintain a consistent username, unrelated to their academic identity. This doesn’t stop people from creating multiple accounts, although it does restrict the nature of unfettered anonymous comments.
2) The ‘Prince’ registers email addresses and/or netIDs alongside the anonymous comments. This way, in the case when anonymous comments dissolve into actual criminal activity — real threats of violence or bodily harm that would fail the constitutional tests that determine protected speech — the ‘Prince’ and the administration have the ability to follow up on it.
These solutions are probably also imperfect, and I recognize the potential technological investment the ‘Prince’ website would require to pursue said changes. But I believe either of these options is preferable to removing anonymity altogether.
On a final note, I acknowledge those who argue that mean-spirited comments are often meant to shut down speech rather than promote it. Anonymous comments can also hurt the writers who brave using their public name to write unpopular opinions.
Personally, do I think twice about my words before I write another public article because I’ve been harassed on the Internet? Sure. But I’m partial to the reminder that “the solution to bad speech is more speech.” And those without the privilege of public favor, based on their identity or their unpopular beliefs, are the ones most in need of a right to speak, a voice in the arena — even if this voice is anonymous.
Vivienne Chen is an English major from Pleasanton, Calif., and can be reached at email@example.com.