Anonymous v. The Westboro Baptist Church

It’s war.  Anonymous, the online hacker collective which has of late become something of an attack dog for Wikileaks and Julian Assange, has found a new target–the Westboro Baptist Church.  On February 16, 2011, Anonymous ordered the church to cease and desist all of its hateful activities.  It warned:

[Y]ou will meet with the vicious retaliatory arm of ANONYMOUS: We will target your public Websites, and the propaganda & detestable doctrine that you promote will be eradicated; the damage incurred will be irreversible, and neither your institution nor your congregation will ever be able to fully recover.

The church simply responded “Bring It!”  I’m sure their private discussions were even classier.

Like all normal people everywhere, I have no love of the Westboro Baptist Church.  I am definitely in the minority of liberals (and probably lawyers of all political stripes) when I saw that I firmly believe that the church should lose its case currently pending before the Supreme Court.  But then again, I also believe that the First Amendment has been expanded well beyond all intention or recognition.

Anonymous, as a collective, does not seem to have any set goals other than to cause general anarchy and mayhem, although many of their activities, particularly of late, have a free speech bent–particularly with regard to Wikileaks.  Which is why this attack on the Phelps clan is very disturbing to me.  Although, personally, I would love to see the Westboro Baptist Church go down in flames, the fact that an online collective has decided what is good and what is bad, and (more importantly) has the power to do something about it, makes me uneasy.

The First Amendment does not apply here–it is a prohibition on government only.  One of my pet peeves is when people say, “I have the right to free speech” whenever someone tries to stop them from talking.  It’s not true, and they don’t.  The First Amendment limits the government’s power to act.  However, I can stop someone whose speech I don’t like by kicking him out of my home.  A business can stop him by removing him from its premises.

The reason that the First Amendment was created was the fear that good speech would be squelched because of its content by a bad government.  In 1789, only governmental authority could effectively use that power–hence the First Amendment was an attempt to stop the federal government from becoming a bad one.  As a result, speech of all content is protected–the government cannot say what is right or wrong, even when the voters want it so (or at least that is the theory if not always the practice.)

In 2011 things are much different because of the Internet.  Therefore Anonymous, by virtue of its members’ Internet skills, has the power to do what once only the government was able to do–prevent the speech of an individual or a group.  While the First Amendment restrains the American federal and local governments, it does not limit Anonymous.  There may be laws against hacking, but truthfully, no one can stop Anonymous.  Such laws only extend so far.  Anonymous is a worldwide collective whose entirety is not bound by any one code, even if select members are.

I confess to being uneasy.  We have entered a brave new world, and I am not sure I like it.

If any member of Anonymous wants to alleviate (or stoke) my fears, by all means please post in the comments.  Are my fears justified?

{edited 2/21/11:  It appears that the alleged attacks on the Phelps clan by Anonymous was a hoax.  Anonymous reasserted that it does support free speech, and stated it was not (yet) interested in the Westboro Baptist Church, which is reassuring.  Nevertheless, I hold by earlier comments about what would happen when an online collective that is not so in favor of free speech decides to strike a target of which it does not approve.}

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