New Privacy Law Threatens Freedom of Speech Online

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Last December, President Biden signed a bill into law that allows federal judges to extrajudicially censor information on the internet, according to a recent article by the Freedom of the Press Foundation. The bill, named the Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act, has already allowed over 1,000 judges to request the removal of information on the internet with virtually no oversight. This comes after a number of high-profile cases provoked outrage, including the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling which decided that the US Constitution did not grant the right to abortion.

The bill gives judges the ability to redact so-called “personal information,” such as home addresses or the addresses of their children’s schools. It legally legitimizes a censorship process that the US court system’s Threat Management Branch had been conducting for nearly a year before the bill’s passage. The bill uses the name of Daniel Anderl, the son of a New Jersey federal judge who was killed by a gunman using information found on the internet. The timing of this bill’s passing is suspect, however; after Anderl was killed in 2020, the bill made no progress until a number of controversies regarding the privacy of judges occurred in 2022. Shortly after the Dobbs v. Jackson decision was leaked, a number of protests were held at the homes of Supreme Court Justices. Journalists also recently uncovered the efforts of Ginni Thomas (wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

The impact of these and other various inconveniences that members of the judiciary (Supreme Court Justices and otherwise) have suffered as a result of their recent historically unpopular decision-making would likely have been significantly reduced had this bill been passed a year earlier. It can be argued, therefore, that the aim of the bill is not on safety but privacy, something that public figures (those with lifetime appointments in particular) must sacrifice inherently. The bill also grants judges the right to remove social security numbers and bank account numbers from the internet, a right not held by regular American citizens.

In corporate media, the bill has been mostly ignored. When it has been covered, however, it’s been lauded as a triumph in a time of increased danger for judges. One article from CNBC (the only major news organization covering the bill in depth as of March 2023) focuses on the effects of the bill three months after its passing, noting the high (1,000+) number of judges who are now safe from “skyrocketing” threats. The article does not interrogate the bill’s motivations, attributing its passing solely to the murder of Daniel Anderl and an alleged assassination attempt on the already protected Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. This perspective ignores the variety of reasons why threats on judges have increased, specifically the judiciary’s massive swing towards radical conservatism following the Trump Administration. The article also fails to acknowledge the obvious free speech violations. Ironically, neither the judges who use this program nor the journalists who write about it seem at all concerned with the First Amendment. Lastly, the article makes no point out of the fact that, in a time of nearly unprecedented polarization, this bill was enacted into law with support from both political parties and all three branches of government.

Source: Seth Stern, “Judges Can Now Censor the Internet on the Taxpayer Dime,” Freedom of the Press Foundation, January 12, 2023.

Student Researcher: Dillon McCarthy (Drew University)

Faculty Evaluator: Lisa Lynch (Drew University)