Here’s another example of a problem I hope my forthcoming book will help fix. A woman in Missouri has been denied the right to conceal her identity in a lawsuit challenging Christian prayers at county commission meetings. The court had initially granted a motion to file as Jane Doe but has now rescinded that after allowing both sides to brief the issue.
Plaintiff’s claim is that if her identity is made public, she will be “subjected to harassmentand retaliation.” The general rule, however, is that, “. . .lawsuits are public events and the publichas a legitimate interest in knowing the facts involved in them. Among those facts is the identityof the parties.” As other courts have explained, “There is a First Amendment interest in public proceedings, andidentifying the parties to an action is an important part of making it truly public.” Furthermore, “When a party invokes the judicial powers of the United States, she invites public scrutiny of the dispute and the proceeding. ‘The people have a right to know who is using their courts.’”
The general test for allowing a plaintiff to proceed anonymously is ‘’whether the plaintiff ‘has a substantial privacy right which outweighs the customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings.’” In that regard, “The threat of hostile public reaction to a lawsuit, standing alone, will only with great rarity warrant public anonymity.” Additionally, “[t]he risk that a plaintiff may suffer some embarrassment is insufficient to permit anonymity.”In support of her motion, plaintiff has filed an affidavit in which she states that, “I believe that I will be harassed and driven from the community if my identity as the plaintiff inthis case is publicly known.” She adds that, “Shortly after this lawsuit was filed, I attended a[commission] meeting in which one of the attendees took the microphone and proclaimed that the ‘blood of the anti-Christ flows through the ACLU.’” This incident, she says, was reported in the media. She also refers to a comment to an online newspaper story in which the person posting the comment stated that he/she will come to one of the council meetings to “investigate and find out who [plaintiff] is.”
Having carefully considered the issue, this Court determines that plaintiff’s concerns do not overcome the constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings. Plaintiff has availed herself of the court system and in doing so, she has invited public scrutiny of her claims. And as noted, a hostile public reaction and the prospect of embarrassment are insufficient to justify proceeding anonymously.
How about the prospect of being inundated with death threats and quite possibly being the victim of vandalism and violence? Because that isn’t some unlikely scenario, it is a virtual certainty.