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Addressing the challenge of anonymous sources in the digital age

Dr Aljosha Karim Schapals, research assistant at the Information Law and Policy Centre, reports from the launch of a new book by Eric Barendt, Emeritus Professor of Media Law at UCL, on anonymous speech in the context of literature, law and politics.

On 28 June, Professor Eric Barendt launched his new book ‘Anonymous Speech: Literature, Law and Politics’ at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS). His book critically examines the arguments for and against anonymity, which in the context of online communications draw attention to complex and important moral and legal questions.

It is on this basis that Barendt started outlining the pros and cons of anonymous speech, both online as well as offline: on the one hand, the use of pseudonyms has enabled great writers such as Jane Austen to publish anonymously and to have their privacy protected on the grounds of gender and socio-economic class considerations. Furthermore, anonymity allows writers to have their work considered solely on the basis of its merits rather than the additional ‘baggage’ that comes with being an established writer.

On the other hand, however, anonymity can be used to deceive audiences or inflict harm. Barendt stressed that anonymity on the Internet can encourage more socially disinhibited behaviour leading to hate speech, threats of rape and violence as well as cyberbullying.

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