Should a National Review writer have outed an anonymous blogger?

national reviewAccording to Ed Whelan, a lawyer and contributing blogger to the National Review Online, the pseudonymous blogger known until recently as just “publius” 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.

23 Comments

  1. Drew Says:

    Blevin’s identity simply wasn’t relevant to the argument they were having. As such, there really is no justification for Whelan trying to cause him political and personal harm by outing him (a perfectly appropriate term). Pseudonymous blogging more often than not is to protect family and employers more than the blogger themselves. It strikes me that if Whelan were looking at anyone’s conduct beyond his own, he’d understand and respect that. But now he’s forced to put a rational face on something that was clearly an emotional and immature reaction.

    The charge that Blevins was “irresponsible” and so this justified a backhanded slap is simply pathetic as a defense. Political enemies characterize each other’s claims and arguments as “irresponsible” all the time: its a tit-for-tat accusation that you respond to with more arguments, and then let readers decide. I’m sure that Blevins (and others, including non-leftists) thinks that Whelan’s arguments as irresponsible and misleading. Does this mean that Blevins or anyone else would be justified in egging Whelan’s house, or posting a google map of it with instructions for readers to do it for him? Of course not.

    Whelan was simply childish here, and he should feel embarrassed that he let a blogger’s criticism get to him to the point that he demeaned himself with a lame cheap shot.

  2. Christina Gleason @ Phenomenal Content Says:

    Having used pseudonyms for several years myself, what Whelan did was simply unacceptable. As Drew mentioned in his comment, pseudonyms may be used to protect other people in a blogger’s life. When I went by my first and middle names as my pseudonym – my pen name – I was protecting my family’s privacy. When I went by an obviously manufactured name, it was at the behest of my employer, who had created it for me. (Although, looking back, I think that was an attempt to keep competitors from poaching me.)

    People choose pseudonyms for a variety of reasons. Journalists protect the identities of their sources at penalty of jail time. While not exactly the same thing, I think the ethical thing to do is to protect the anonymity of those who wish to remain anonymous in the blogging world. At the very least, it’s a professional courtesy.

  3. Nathan Hughes Says:

    Interesting to look at it from a few different angles, and I’m sure that a hypothetical case could be presented where the “outing” of a pseudonymous blogger could be very important to the public good. — i.e., someone is working under a pseudonym and illegally pumping up or deflating stock prices of their own company

    That being said, I’m sure there are lots of cases where the unmasking is purely a knee-jerk reaction like Drew says in comment #1.

    Unless there is a public safety or legal concern, then a pseudonym should stay secret.

  4. Anonymous Luke Says:

    Whelan is a jackhole. Nothing good to be said about him or his actions. By the way, Publius’s analyis of the fact that Whelan is a legal hack and that Whelan probably knows just how much of a hack he is….was right on point. I think Publius hit a touch too close to home, and Whelan needed to say or do ANYTHING to make himself feel like he “scored” a hit too.

  5. Charles Crawford Says:

    I disagree with the above comments, from distant England no less. My initial take yesterday:

    http://charlescrawford.biz/blog.php?single=1005

    Having never read anything by either of them and stumbling by chance on the subject, it seems to me that Whelan did nothing at all unreasonable.

    Most of the stridency surrounding the criticism of Whelan seems to come from the fact that he is ‘Right’ (ie a priori bad) and Blevins is ‘Left.

    If there is a compelling reason for choosing anonymity in sounding off on the Web, why should that not come with a dose of extra responsibility and generosity of spirit towards opponents? After all, if one anonymous professor has a go at a known professor, using arguments which s/he otherwise would be loath to use publicly, is that not in some sense abusing the expected self-restraint of the known professor for unprofessional purposes?

    Plus in law there is the famous egg-shell skull doctrine. If you thump someone and it just happens that that person for medical reasons is prone to suffer serious injury from blows which would be painful but harmless to 99.9% of the population, the law expects you to accept the consequences. That incentives less thumping.

    Likewise if you pester or annoy someone through anonymous blogging, you might just hit upon a person who is so vexed by such behaviour that s/he breaches your anonymity. It’s a risk, the effect of which might be seen as keeping incentivising anonymous bloggers to err on the side of being fair and courteous. And, if you do provoke someone into ‘outing’ you, grow up and put it down to experience.

    In short, Whelan has nothing at all to apologise about. Blevins should think a bit more about professional ethics and good manners – as he appears to be doing from the last line in the Bloggasm posting?

    And thanks to Simon Owens for presenting the issue in a civilised and balanced way above.

  6. mightygodking Says:

    Most of the stridency surrounding the criticism of Whelan seems to come from the fact that he is ‘Right’ (ie a priori bad) and Blevins is ‘Left.

    Most of the strawman defenses of Whelan seem to come from the fact that Blevins is a liberal and that therefore all liberals feel the need to jump to his defense as if they were robots. This manages to be both untrue and irrelevant.

    Of course, the practice of outing psueudonymous bloggers is one that almost uniformly belongs to the right-wing of the internet; witness what happened to Duncan Black before this. It’s always an attempt to embarrass, or enforce the idea that “taking on” prominent right-wingers brings with it consequences (specifically consequences that should discourage people from engaging in criticism).

    After all, if one anonymous professor has a go at a known professor, using arguments which s/he otherwise would be loath to use publicly, is that not in some sense abusing the expected self-restraint of the known professor for unprofessional purposes?

    The arguments Blevins were “otherwise loath to use publicly” were not ones he was ashamed of because they were scurrilous or irresponsible. He wasn’t attacking Whelan irresponsibly, either, nor using ad hominem. He presented a scenario that was unquestionably true – namely, that Whelan was advancing arguments so ignorant of the law that he, a trained legal mind, had to recognize that they were false, and that his motives for doing so could not be honorable. (Whelan has yet to refute these charges, one might add. He’s just engaged in a round of insults and catcalling.)

  7. Drew Says:

    “Most of the stridency surrounding the criticism of Whelan seems to come from the fact that he is ‘Right’ (ie a priori bad) and Blevins is ‘Left.”

    I disagree, and this sort of change of knee-jerk bias isn’t particularly fair to level against people who have put forth actual arguments to support their position. Plenty of people on the right think the outing was not called for and childish as well.

    Heated debates happen all the time on the internet. Whelan’s excuse that he believed Blevin’s arguments were misleading and irresponsible, and thus striking at him personally is acceptable, is pure boilerplate. Nearly everyone on the right and left accuses the other side of being irresponsible, stupid, dishonest, and so forth. The Corner, for instance, is one of the best conservative group blogs out there, but its posters say plenty of nasty and unfair things about their targets all the time: that doesn’t and wouldn’t justify anyone going after them where they work, all just to slap them in the face.

    Toss out all the rationales for why it was justified after the fact, but at the end of the day, Whelan’s behavior was simply petty and churlish, not any sort of pressing public service. He had the high ground in terms of the tenor of his arguments… and he chose to give it up.

  8. Edward Barrera Says:

    Sorry, but this is much ado. Blevins wasn’t worried about losing his job or his safety. He was only worried that he would be held accountable for what he wrote.
    The web would be more civil if people were held responsible for what they said and did. There are certainly unique situations where anonymity is completely understandable. This isn’t one of them.

  9. Redwood Says:

    Yes, the idea that the web is a gentleman’s club, where assorted men of mystery can smear, deride and lie about everything under the cover of user name, is absurd. The internet is like a newspaper, a domain for exchanging ideas, a public square. If a fellow has the urge to break all rules of decency, he cannot expect to go under the radar of User Name. Grow up punk!

  10. John Clifford Says:

    I think that if I were called a liar by another blogger who wanted to post anonymously, and I found out his identity, then I’d out him. Why not? Why should Mr. Blevins feel emboldened to write something as ‘publius’ that he wouldn’t write as ‘Mr. Blevins’?

    I don’t buy the BS about how his pseudonomous reputation being somehow akin to a REAL reputation, either. A pseudonym that isn’t associated with someone’s real name is just another way of hiding behind anonymity so as to not have to be responsible for one’s comments. Blevins admits this when he says that being outed has made him moderate his blogging: “I guess the fear is that it would make me more cautious in my writing.”

    Maybe if he had been more cautious in his libeling of another self-identified blogger, he wouldn’t have been outed. Live and learn….

  11. Fritz Jorgensen Says:

    I’ll start by saying that I was unaware of either Mr. Whelan or Mr. Blivens before this whole sorry mess started being discussed on various blogs, but when I was growing up my parents taught me that if I was ashamed or embarrassed to admit to my actions or words I probably should not be doing or saying those things. So while I can’t say I approve of Mr. Whelan’s actions, I feel no sympathy for Mr. Blivens and his arguments about pseudonymity leave me totally unconvinced. What I have observed is that when people hide their identity they tend to be less polite than those who don’t. And yes, you can point to many who are willing to use their own names and are not polite, but on the whole people do tend to be more polite when they know that others will be able to connect their remarks to them.

  12. jb Says:

    Ed Whelan apologized to Publius because he eventually realized that it’s not a question of public safety or employment security. It’s a question of good manners and civil discourse.

    Pseudonomnity has a centuries long history. Authors who’ve use it do so for their own reasons, and must actually work harder to develop respect and reputation. Their accountability is based only on their words and not their resume or the profile of the publication who employs them.

    By ignoring this history and the sneering at the personal choices of the author, Whelan outed himself as a crass childish illiterate buffoon. Sadly, he’s realized his mistake too late.

  13. mk Says:

    This issue begs the question, “Would you criticize someone in public while wearing a mask?” The principle is the same. If you want to argue, you have to argue by adult rules, otherwise move on. The internet is a big place and there are plenty of things to write about anonymously without a masked attacked on a writer who risks his reputation and then is forced to defend himself against an invisible opponent. This is a Leftist trope and is used in universities where students accused of rape or “hate speech” are put on trial and are not permitted to know who their accuser is.

    Lastly, I too am a professor and am sympathetic to Mr. Blevins’ argument about not prejudicing his students against him; but the purpose of classroom presentation is to have integrity, not to have a perfect objectivity. Students respect you if they perceive you as trying to be fair. They call you out when you’re not. What matters most to students is how you treat them and their arguments in the classroom. Be respectful and they will respect you. The same principle applies on the internet. Had Mr. Blevins engaged Mr. Whelan in public, lawyer to lawyer, they could have had a productive, public, and professional discussion that all would have benefited from. Instead, we get this mess. Anonymous bloggers and sock puppeteers are free to blog; they are not free to attack without consequences.

  14. Tom Maguire Says:

    Of course, the practice of outing psueudonymous bloggers is one that almost uniformly belongs to the right-wing of the internet; witness what happened to Duncan Black before this. It’s always an attempt to embarrass, or enforce the idea that “taking on” prominent right-wingers brings with it consequences (specifically consequences that should discourage people from engaging in criticism).

    I try to learn something new every day. I remember that Don Luskin *threatened* to out Atrios in order to sue him for libel (or some such), but never followed through.

    I remember that Atrios more or less outed himself when he appeared at the 2004 Democratic Convention and took a job at Media Matters (I guess that engaging in media criticism both publicly at Media Matters and pseudononymously at Eschaton struck people as absurd).

    And I remember that righty Juan Non-Volokh was outed for more or less the same reason that Ed Whelan outed Blevins – an angry lefty law prof thought his critics were not entitled to pseudonymity.

    [Link]

    http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2005/06/who_is_juan_non.html

  15. mac Says:

    I am sure that lawyers would never out a crap doctor giving bad care to patients. If Whelan picked up on dubious legal knowledge, he is obligated to expose this man and warn the people who are getting bad counsel.

  16. South Florida Lawyers Says:

    This is a nice piece of reporting, with good follow up interviews with the subjects.

    What I would have liked to see examined, on an objective level, is whether Whelan’s purported basis for the outting — Blevins’ poor legal analysis — has any merit.

    From my own vantage point, it seems hard to justify Ed’s attack on the alleged judicial philosophy of a sitting federal appellate judge based on an old judges’ joke used once at a law school graduation ceremony. It was Blevin’s admittedly harsh assessment of that attack which led to the outting.

  17. DrummingAncient Says:

    Pseudonymous blogging is practiced by Glenn Reynolds. (Instapundit). Anonymous blogging is a way to avoid having anybody criticize you to your face.

    Publius lays out his own sentence for the “crime” of anonymous blogging: “But I guess the fear is that it would make me more cautious in my writing.” Well, no duh.

    He’s afraid of being more cautious in his writing? This, from a lawyer?

    Sigh…

  18. South Florida Lawyers Says:

    I give Whelan credit for his full and unreserved apology.

  19. Hyman Roth Says:

    Whelan writes under his own name, and takes responsibility for what he writes. His identity, and credentials are known.

    Blevins hides behind a mask, and far from merely debating the merits of judicial nominees (Koh and Sotomayor), chooses to use ad hominem attacks on Whelan and his credentials instead of debating the issue at hand.

    Quotes from Blevins:

    “[Ed Whelan is a] “know-nothing demagogue”

    [Ed Whelan is a] “legal hitman”

    There’s plenty more. Blevins is an obnoxious jerk who stepped over the line. When he attacked someone else’s reputation and credentials, his own reputation and credentials become fair game.

    The person to blame for Blevins’ predicament is the person he sees in the mirror.

    And the people who are tacitly defending Blevins by attacking Whelan are harming the cause of internet debate, not helping it.

  20. Steve White Says:

    A pseudonymous reputation is different from a real-life reputation in one critical way, a way that Prof. Blevins seems to miss: if Prof. Blevins were to walk away from ‘publius’, no one would know it was him. Publius would simply cease to exist, his writings would disappear, and Prof. Blevins would continue in his life as a law professor.

    Indeed, Prof. Blevins could dump the pseudonym ‘publius’, pick a new pseudonym, and start blogging under that new name. It would appear to you and me that nym#2 was a new person.

    In this context, a pseudonymous personality is nothing more than a sock puppet. Indeed, one could have multiple pseudonymous personalities. Any pseudonymous personality on the web can be invented and removed at will. A real person cannot be. One’s real-life reputation is based on what one does. One’s pseudonymous reputation is based on how one writes on the web.

    So I come down on the side of Mr. Whelan: if I were being attacked by a pseudonymous blogger, and if I were sufficiently vexed by that person, I would consider discovering and disclosing that person’s real identity. I’d try to be a bit more reasonable at first, but there’s the old saying: “I’m 51% nice guy and 49% jerk. Don’t push me.”

    Steve White (my real name)

  21. William Simpson Says:

    This is a tempest in a teapot (as with most of the blogosphere.)

    Blogging Ethics? That has to rank up there with “Faithful Bubba”, “Humble Obama” or “Cuddly O’Reily”. The ethics of the blogosphere have allowed right and left to levy hateful, inaccurate and often damaging lies and vitriol spew unabated. Obama was a target of it (rumors of him being a Manchurian Muslim) and so was Palin (the kid’s kid, the Downs baby, burning books, etc.) as was McCain (infidelity). The only guy who was not a target was Biden, which affims the notion that you do not attack the inconsequential.

    Secondly, Publius doth protest too much. Question: What lawyer leaves a federal job and does not go into lucrative private practice? Answer: One with no offers or one who understands his limitations.

    I suspect his reason for the pseudonym, given his exceedingly poor grasp of the facts and the law have more to do with him being worried that exposure would reveal a very average lawyer with a shallow grasp of legal concepts. I have often thought some of the stuff he has written was parody as it was so poorly cited, explained and argued.

    What Whelen did was mean, but on the bright side, some of Publius’ students can now avoid him for his politics and the rest because most law students do not want to end up middling country lawyers shilling malpractice suits at midnight on cable television.

  22. Drew Says:

    Yep: obviously I disagree with Whelan’s original behavior, but that was a real apology and a real acceptance of an apology that does both players credit.

  23. Clifton Chadwick Says:

    It seems to me that “anonymous blogger” is an oxymoron.


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