Should a National Review writer have outed an anonymous blogger?

According to Ed Whelan, a lawyer and contributing blogger to the National Review Online, the pseudonymous blogger known until recently as just publishing began “biting at [his] ankles” a few months ago. Whelan initially started writing essays for NRO back in 2005 and was then encouraged to blog for the site about Supreme Court nominations. He continued to contribute there over the years and late last year also began blogging for The Corner, NRO’s most popular blog. Recently, Whelan has been extensively commenting on the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, and his analysis has come under sharp criticism from some members of the legal blogosphere, including publius. In fact the two have exchanged emails over the last few weeks and Whelan told me that he even responded to his criticisms in the comment section of Obsidian Wings, the blog where publius contributes.

On Friday, publius published a post on his blog titled, “The Education of Ed Whelan” in which he quoted excerpts from other bloggers’ criticisms of Whelan. It was sometime around then that Whelan learned — he wouldn’t tell me how — publius’ true identity; his name was John F. Blevins, and he was a law professor at South Texas College of Law. After first emailing publius to try to confirm his identity, Whelan went ahead and outed him in a blog post

“At first I was just going to ignore his post but I changed my mind when I found out that he was a law professor,” Whelan told me in a phone conversation. “A law professor should especially be held to minimal standards, and I was surprised that this guy was a law professor given the poor legal understanding of his posts. Let me be clear, I have no objection to bloggers who want to hide behind pseudonyms, but if someone is hiding behind a pseudonym to take cheap shots at me, I don’t think I owe him any favors.”

Not everyone agreed with him. After he outed the anonymous blogger, Whelan was criticized by bloggers on both the right and left, many of whom thought he had crossed the line of an unspoken code of blogger ethics. Blevins himself posted a response stating that he “would never have done that to my harshest critic in a million years” and he claimed that Whelan had outed him out of embarrassment after Blevins and other bloggers had made him “look rather silly.”

obsidian wingsI spoke to Blevins in a phone conversation yesterday, and he told me that there was a combination of reasons that he had chosen to write under a pseudonym. He had begun blogging back in 2004 when he was a federal clerk, and not long afterward he went to work for a private practice in Washington, DC. He said that he didn’t want his blogging to alienate his clients, and he made the same argument for why he continued to maintain his pseudonym after becoming a law professor; he didn’t want his more conservative students to feel uncomfortable in his classroom (he gave other reasons as well, all of which were outlined in his response post to Whelan’s outing him).

“I think on one level I was mad because I saw it as vindictive,” Blevins told me. “When you combine the sort of pretext that Ed cited along with the email he sent me before outing me, I think it shows that he crossed the line, sort of an informal code of the blogosphere. It’s not devastating by any means, and any harm that would result is longer term. I don’t know if anything bad will happen, the fears that students might be hostile, the fear that it might affect future jobs, those are not things that I can know in the short term. To be honest I don’t know how exactly it will affect me.”

I pointed out that Whelan might have been angry because when he writes under his own name he is constantly risking his reputation, and this sometimes makes writers bitter toward their pseudonymous detractors, who are not always held accountable for their words.

“Well sure, but I think that it’s important to distinguish between anonymity and pseudonymity,” he replied. “It’s one thing for an anonymous commenter to come in and just be a flame thrower, but what I do is I write pseudonymously, and I have a reputation of my own. It’s an online reputation. It’s a reputation that I care about, that I’ve invested a lot in, and I don’t want to be embarrassed in the blogosphere. I try to think through my arguments. To say there’s no real world effect, I don’t agree with that, because if I write something stupid, I’m going to get called out for that. In fact, I have written stupid things and I got called out and it affected my reputation. So I do have some reputational incentives to be honest, to be respectful in all these things.”

More than that, he said, pseudonymity is a “well respected norm” within the blogosphere. He argued that though criticisms are thrown about wildly in the blogosphere, most bloggers draw the line at attacking someone’s personal life, which is what he thought Whelan had done by outing him.

But in his response post to Blevins and his conversations with me, Whelan said he didn’t buy into most these arguments. He said that the potential of clients, students or family members not agreeing with what you write is just “part of the price” of expressing yourself in a public forum. He also didn’t think Blevins’ reputation argument held much water.

“I do think it’s clear that the disciplining effect that signing something to your name has isn’t present when you’re using a pseudonym,” he said. “I’m not going to entirely dismiss the argument that someone writing under a pseudonym is trying to develop a reputation, but given the culture of the internet, I don’t think it’s easy to develop a reputation and an audience without standing behind the integrity of your arguments. So I’m not particularly persuaded by that. I see an internet culture that rewards and invites irresponsible anonymous attacks.”

Whelan even objected to the term “outed,” which has been used by many (including me) to describe what he had done to Blevins. “I think the word ‘outed’ confuses understanding here. I think people are drawing on the ugliness of identifying that someone is homosexual. In this context, to say I outed publius, well publius doesn’t exist. I identified who’s hiding behind publius. I think to identify someone who is blogging behind a pseudonym is very different than exposing some private aspect of a person’s life. I think that the term outing confuses things.”

Though Blevins is still considering whether he will continue posting under the pseudonym publius or his real name, I asked him if he thinks the content of his postings will change. Now that his name has been attached to his writing, will this make him less likely to voice strong opinions in his blog?

“I hope not, I’ve been heartened to see people who used to write under psuedonyms say that their blogging didn’t change very much after they started writing under their real names,” he replied. “I hope … I don’t see any immediate impact. But I guess the fear is that it would make me more cautious in my writing.”

But, as even he admitted to me in conversation, being more cautious in your writing before posting it in the blogosphere is not always necessarily a bad thing.