When “Anonymous” takes to the street on Saturday to protest the Church of Scientology in honor of its founder L. Ron Hubbard’s birthday they will do so without their trademark masks of Guy Fawkes.
“Anonymous” wear their masks—which either offer homage to the failed 17th Century terrorist who become an English folk hero of sorts or the 2005 film “V for Vendetta,” depending on who you ask—to keep the Scientology hierarchy from learning their names and seeing their faces, an action that holds special urgency given the church’s penchant for outing, harassing and generally embarrassing its critics, a process formerly known as “fair game.”
Though masks have been a successful tactic in other cities they are useless in New York. On the “Anonymous” protest planning forums Enturbulation.org, the loose-knit collective of activists, hackers and pranksters have gone to great lengths to warn one another that masks are not tolerated in New York. Sure, two people standing together can wear whatever they want. Add a third, and this becomes a crime.
The law dates back to the 19th Century, said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), and was originally put on the books to thwart highway bandits. In 1999 the NYCLU brought a lawsuit against the Giuliani administration after it denied a parade permit to the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, using the mask law as the excuse.
The State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, upheld the mask law in 2004, and Dunn noted that that masks can only be worn in large numbers for entertainment purposes in New York State. In the decision Judge Jose A. Cabranes wrote that while free speech is protected in America, there is no law requiring ideal conditions for that speech. No one would ever mistake the KKK for another group if they went without hoods, he added, and therefore the hoods were not a parade necessity.
The New York branch of the National Lawyers Guild offers a handy fact sheet about the ordinance, which notes that the original law was passed in 1845 to “discourage armed insurrections in the Hudson River Valley by impoverished tenant farmers.” If you already bought the mask, the general consensus on “Anonymous’” forums is to bring it anyway and throw it on backwards. The NYCLU also has an excellent palm card outlining all you need to know about demonstrating in New York City. Know your rights!
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 14, 2008