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October 8, 2012

"Sock puppets have no constitutional rights" — Attorney Ron Kuby


"Sock puppeteers have First Amendment Rights," added Kuby.

Kuby's remarks appeared in Jim Dwyer's admirable column on the history of sock puppetry which appeared in the September 25, 2012 New York Times.

More excerpts below.

Sometimes, there’s nothing like a friend to stick up for you. Even an imaginary friend.

In recent weeks, "Sophia Walker" has been surfing across the Internet, vigorously defending the leader of the State Assembly, Sheldon Silver, and his handling of sexual harassment charges against Vito J. Lopez, the assemblyman and fallen leader of the Democratic Party in Brooklyn.

"This entire affair is nothing more than election-year scandal-mongering," Sophia Walker wrote.

Actually, Sophia Walker was an employee of Mr. Silver’s office, Bill Eggler.

On the Internet, as a cartoon famously said, nobody knows you’re a dog. Even if you’re barking incessantly about Shelly Silver.

This was a case of sock puppetry: appearing online under a fictive name to argue or finagle or bully. It is widely practiced, though not always detectable.

Tempting though it may be to see sock puppetry as a twisted outcropping of a digital age, it has a deep history. Benjamin Franklin wrote as Silence Dogood and Alice Addertongue, among many — including Richard Saunders, of "Poor Richard’s Almanack." Kierkegaard published treatises under multiple pseudonyms, then managed the trick of editing himself under still other pseudonyms, earning him bonus sock-puppet points, even if that seems to miss the entire point of having an editor.

No list of early sock puppeteers would be complete without Fernando Pessoa, a Portuguese poet and man of letters in the early 20th century, who created 72 imaginary names to cover his various writing moods and modes; he staged debates among them and had one announcing the death of another, to much grief. Pessoa called these "heteronyms," a term that lacks the faintly musty notes of sock puppet.

The example of Pessoa was invoked by a leading sock puppeteer of recent times in New York, a man from Greenwich Village named Raphael Golb, whose doctoral dissertation at Harvard was titled "The Problems of Privacy and Trust in Modern Literature."

Mr. Golb created 72 identities for raucous online debates about the origins of the Dead Sea Scrolls with others who, it turns out, were fighting it out under cover of socks as well. Working from computers in the Bobst Library at New York University, where he went to law school, Mr. Golb also sent e-mails that made embarrassing admissions or assertions on behalf of his opponents. He wrote from Gmail and Yahoo accounts that he created in their names.

Just last month, prosecutors in Manhattan submitted a brief to the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court arguing that Mr. Golb was correctly found guilty of sock puppetry that spiraled into felonies. Since that crime is not on the statutes, he was convicted of identity theft, criminal impersonation and forgery.

There was no question of anyone making money in this cyber-brawl.

"Only 100 people on earth understood what this was about," noted Ron Kuby, a lawyer for Mr. Golb. Of those, he estimated four were actually engaged in the debate, under scores of names.

He is appealing the conviction, arguing that the prosecution turns libel — a civil matter — into a criminal act.

"Sock puppets have no constitutional rights," Mr. Kuby said. "Sock puppeteers have First Amendment rights."

In Albany, after Mr. Eggler was exposed by The New York Post, Mr. Silver’s office reprimanded him. That may sound like a wrist slap. But the boss also stopped giving him Internet access. For a sock puppet, that's cutting off food and water.

October 8, 2012 at 07:01 PM | Permalink


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Abraham Lincoln had a habit of shooting down his political foes with witty letters to the editor, published under pseudonym.

Then came a change of fortune: a target properly identified the author and challenged the future president to a duel!

I'll let those interested in the details locate their own copy of "Lincoln as a Lawyer". Suffice it to say that Mr. Eggler has it easy.

Posted by: 6.02*10^23 | Oct 8, 2012 11:43:22 PM

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