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Hit by free-speech worries, senator spikes Internet anti-anonymity legislation

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SPRINGFIELD-Facing a free-speech outcry, an Illinois lawmaker decided Thursday to pull the plug on anti-bullying legislation he introduced to require website managers to pull down anonymous, hate-filled Internet posts if they were requested to do so.

A measure sponsored by state Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) would have made website administrators, upon request, to remove comments by any anonymous posters unless those people attached their names to their posts and confirmed their Internet Protocol addresses and home addresses.

The plan called the Internet Posting Removal Act, which Silverstein introduced earlier this month, was inspired by anti-bullying legislation that surfaced in New York but died in that state's legislature last June.

"I'm going to kill the bill," Silverstein said Thursday afternoon after the legislation drew national attention and provoked criticism from Internet free-speech advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Earlier in the day, before deciding to mothball his legislation, Silverstein explained its motivation.

"It really has to do with cyber-bullying," he told the Chicago Sun-Times. "The Internet is a great thing, and everyone is for it. Saying something is one thing; but once you put it on the Internet, it's there forever."

Silverstein said his intention wasn't to clamp down on free-speech rights and that he merely was looking for a way to stop hate speech, particularly if it was directed at children or teen-agers.

"These things can be very vicious," he said, referring to anonymous attacks on the Internet.

But even if that was his point, one Internet free-speech advocate slammed the legislation as an unconstitutional affront to the First Amendment.

"You can't, as a general policy, just simply allow speakers to be unmasked upon request. That conflicts with Supreme Court precedent going back to as long as we've had free speech and even before there was an Internet," said Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Free Speech Foundation.

Cardozo noted the obvious concerns that could arise if administrators for Internet message boards involving homosexuality, medical issues or domestic violence, for example, were compelled to identify someone who had legitimate reasons to seek anonymity.

"This proposed law would simply make speech about anything but the most banal of topics impossible," Cardozo said.

Cardozo said the legislation also would violate the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution because Illinois has no authority, on its own, to regulate what may be posted on the Internet as a whole.

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