How Manuel Talley’s Handbills Paved the Way for Anonymous Speech Protections
My book explains the strong, but not absolute, protections that U.S. courts provide to anonymous speech. Those safeguards originated from a dispute over civil rights activist Manuel Talley’s March 22, 1958, distribution of handbills outside the A&D Market in Los Angeles. The handbills called for a boycott of the store, alleging that the retailer sold products from manufacturers that did not employ racial minorities.
The handbills were signed only with the name of Talley’s group, National Consumers Mobilization, in violation of a Los Angeles ordinance that required handbills to include the author’s real name. Talley was arrested and charged. At trial, Talley argued that the market also distributed leaflets that did not include the author’s name. This argument did not persuade the judge, who convicted Talley of a misdemeanor and fined him. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the conviction, but two judges struggled to reconcile the fine with a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that blocked Alabama state officials’ efforts to force the NAACP to disclose its membership lists.
The southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union took on Talley’s case and convinced the US Supreme Court to grant certiorari. In its brief, the ACLU traced the history of anonymity back to the Renaissance and Reformation, when writers faced “severe penalties,” through the anonymous works of the eighteenth century to modern periodicals, such as Foreign Affairs, which routinely used pseudonyms. The right to anonymous speech, the lawyers wrote, is particularly important for social reformers. “People usually resent change, and greet it only with hostile reluctance,” they wrote. “For this reason, ideas which tamper with deep-rooted prejudices may expect to encounter serious—and even violent—opposition. The simplest way to discourage such opinions, therefore, is to expose their proponents to a resentful community.”
A barrier to the NAACP’s argument for anonymous speech rights was Lewis Publishing Co. v. Morgan, a 1913 case in which the Supreme Court affirmed a federal law that required publications sent via the mail to file with the postmaster a sworn statement including the names of the editor, along with other information. At oral argument, Justic
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