Anonymous Free Speech: Bankers & Actual People

Today Jacob Gershman reports in the Wall Street Journal that “Wall Street and insurance groups are organizing an effort to overturn a New York ethics regulation requiring trade associations that lobby state government to publicly disclose their sources of funding.”  Part of the New York Bankers Association’s argument against such disclosure is that it chills their right to free speech.  They essentially argue that the right to free speech is really a right to anonymous free speech.

Here is a New York wrinkle to that premise.  In New York, your right to free speech does not include an unlimited right to hide your identity in public.  New Yorkers may have the right to boo, cheer or call out to any public official they encounter, or to wave signs outside city hall, but they do not have the right to do so while hiding their identity.   Under New York’s Penal Law, it is illegal for two or more people to be “masked or in any manner disguised  by  unusual  or  unnatural attire or facial alteration … in a public place.”  (NY Penal Law Section 240.35(4)).  (The only exception is if such identity-hiding “occurs in connection with a masquerade party or like entertainment” and the speakers obtain a city permit.)

Simply put, in New York actual people do not have the unfettered right to publicly gather in a literal town square and speak while concealing their identities.  Should those who instead gather in the virtual town square of television and the internet to affect government be treated differently?

~ John Kenny