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Being a creep is not a constitutionally protected right

Two weeks ago, an enterprising reporter at Gawker uncovered the real-life identity of the website Reddit’s most notorious troll.
Michael Brutsch, who posted under the pseudonym “violentacrez,” has been responsible for some of the website’s most reprehensible content, most notably a thread called “creepshots.” That thread encouraged users to take photos of unsuspecting women in public and post them to be commented on by Reddit users. There were also sub-forums specifically for underage girls, lesbians and various ethnicities.
In the wake of violentacrez’s revelation, Reddit shut down the creepshots forum and many of its progeny.
The Internet community erupted in outrage at the unmasking of violentacrez. Many Reddit users felt that the key to their freedom in posting on the forums was tied to their pseudonymity, and Gawker’s exposure has made them wary. They also claim that the shutdown of violetnacrez’s threads was censoring free speech.
This uproar has raised serious questions about rights, privacy and anonymity on the Internet today. Reddit and its users populate a murky gray area and, as usual, technology has far outpaced the development of laws and left the website and its users to make their own rules.
For the uninitiated, Reddit is a massive online forum moderated mainly by the most prolific posters. Reddit’s content covers an extensive span and would require a cost-prohibitively extensive amount of paid moderators to run the site. Reddit’s successful model requires very few paid employees and relies on its own users to patrol and monitor the boards. Reddit is arguably one of the most influential social media websites today; even President Obama hosted a question-and-answer session on Reddit.
In the days since the story broke, many Reddit users leaped to Brutsch’s defense and rather confusingly equated his right to anonymity/pseudonymity with his right to freedom of speech, implying that without the protection of a pseudonym, Brutsch would engage in self-censorship.
Reddit users have been clinging to the free speech argument as a way to defend their often-reprehensible posts. For the most part, they do have a right to say horrific, vile, racist, misogynist things on forums; their actions are protected as free speech. It’s when that exercise of free speech begins to invade the personal rights of another that this becomes problematic. Creepshots flourished on the degradation of the unknowing and unsuspecting, and that’s not OK. There is no expectation of privacy when we venture out into the public realm. However, just because someone is in public, he or she doesn’t lose an expectation of the right to security and safety in his or her person. There does exist a protectable right not to be photographed without knowledge or consent and then to have that photo disseminated on the Internet.
Free speech is not a right that extends to cover the deplorable actions of creeps.
The other issue circling this episode is the issue of anonymity on the Internet.
The one thing that is absolutely clear: There is no such thing as a right to remain pseudonymous/anonymous on the Internet. For anyone who thinks such a right exists, I’ve got some swampland in Florida I’d like to sell you. While there are community standards in place to protect Reddit and its users’ anonymity, this policy in no way constitutes a defendable right.
If that community standard is used to protect or defend appalling practices, it is even less defensible.
We all use pseudonyms on the Internet. I don’t use my real name when I edit the IMDB pages of obscure German movies, and I use a pseudonym to get into heated YouTube debates about which Les Misérables cast is superior. However, if someone I know or even a potential employer were to know those things, I would stand behind what I said. The outcry over the unmasking of one prolific Reddit troll is really the insecurity of many Reddit users who have posted things they know they can’t defend in real life.
The revealing of violentacrez should give all Reddit posters pause. Think before you post because you never know when an intrepid journalist might reveal your true identity.

Brittany Sharkey is a third-year law student from Oceanside, Calif.  She graduated from NYU in 2010 with a degree in politics.  Follow her on Twitter @brittanysharkey.