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WaPo 1960: Speaking Unfrankly
"For if men spoke only with the tongues of angels, the diversity of what they said would be diminished; and the discourse through which the democratic process operates would be . . . impoverished."
In 1960, a man named Manuel Talley was prosecuted by the City of Los Angeles for anonymously distributing handbills arguing that businesses refusing to hire minorities should be boycotted. His case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in Talley v. California, where the court ruled that the ordinance against distributing anonymous leaflets was overly broad and violated Talley’s First Amendment rights. On March 13, 1960, the Washington Post editorial board weighed in favorably on the court’s decision.
[Note that the following excerpt uses outdated and offensive language to describe minority groups but is being republished here in full for historical context.]
The Supreme Court decision that anonymous publication does not necessarily lie outside the protection of the First Amendment seems to us a sensible strengthening of free speech. The Court struck down a Los Angeles ordinance forbidding the distribution of "any hand-bill in any place under any circumstances" which does not identify on its face the person responsible for issuing it. Identification would, under certain circumstances, tend to restrict freedom of expression out of fear of reprisal. Writing for a majority of the Court, Mr. Justice Black observed that "anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind" and cited as examples the Letters of Junius and the Federalist Papers.
The defect of the Los Angeles ordinance lies in its extreme sweep and lack of discrimination. There are, of course, situations in which public interest would justify a requirement that writers or speakers be identified. It is no infringement of free speech, for instance, for the Securities and Exchange Commission to insist that those who publish a stock prospectus give their names. Similarly, it is reasonable to demand that the sources of election campaign material be disclosed. The Court opinion did not preclude such limited efforts to identify those responsible for fraud, false advertising and libel. "We do not pass on the validity of an ordinance limited to prevent these or any other supposed evils," Justice Black declared.
What was involved in the Los Angeles case was a protest against merchants who denied employment to Negroes, Mexicans and Orientals. No doubt protest would be raised to a more responsible level if its authors were always identified. No doubt, also, it is more admirable for protesters to accept responsibility for what they say than to hide behind anonymity. But the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech was intended to protect speech itself for the sake of the utility inherent in the untrammeled expression of ideas. If the Los Angeles ordinance had been allowed to stand, the City of the Angels would be the poorer for it. For if men spoke only with the tongues of angels, the diversity of what they said would be diminished; and the discourse through which the democratic process operates would be, to that extent, impoverished.