Reporters Committee and media coalition urge court to uphold denial of plaintiffs’ request for anonymity in Second Amendment case

Evan Popp | September 28, 2018
A pair of plaintiffs challenging a new Florida law raising the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21 should not be allowed to remain anonymous during the litigation, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 21 media organizations argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed Friday. The coalition urged the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold a district court's ruling denying the plaintiffs' request to use pseudonyms in the case National Rifle Association, Jane and John Doe v. Attorney General, State of Florida, et al.
 
In its brief, the media coalition notes that "permitting pseudonymous plaintiffs impinges the public's First Amendment and common law rights of access to court proceedings" and would inhibit the press and public's ability to fully and accurately report on and evaluate the judicial proceedings and credibility of the plaintiffs' claims. If the plaintiffs are permitted to proceed anonymously in the case, it could lead to further secrecy, the coalition argues, as plaintiffs "may also ask the district court to seal documents and/or close the courtroom to protect their identities during this litigation." This would prevent journalists and the public from accessing "valuable information about the judicial proceedings and records in this case." 
 
The 11th Circuit has previously held that a "party may proceed anonymously in a civil suit in federal court by showing that he has a substantial privacy right which outweighs the customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings," the National Rifle Association wrote in its brief. But a brief submitted by the Florida Attorney General, who opposes the plaintiffs' request, argues that the plaintiffs have not met the strict standard set in place by the 11th Circuit and have failed to cite a single case where a court has permitted "claims of this kind to be brought under a pseudonym." 
 
The media coalition further explains in its brief that the plaintiffs haven't established that having their names revealed would pose a risk to their privacy rights. Instead, the coalition argues, the plaintiffs have only cited fears of potential violence and harassment because their lawsuit is related to a controversial topic, but have not provided evidence that such a risk is present.
 
Given this, the media coalition argues that granting the plaintiffs' request for anonymity would set a precedent for any plaintiff in a controversial case to be able to keep their name secret. This would contradict how courts have handled other politically charged cases, such as a high-profile Second Amendment case in which Dick Heller — a licensed special police officer — challenged Washington, D.C. gun-control laws as a named plaintiff. According to the brief, "Such a low bar for anonymity would be unprecedented and wholly at odds with the constitutional right of public access to court proceedings that has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the Supreme Court."
 
The coalition brief also explains that the plaintiffs' fears of a litany of media attention focused on them are likely unfounded. Although the case involving Heller, a private citizen, received widespread media coverage, the coalition notes that Heller himself "was not a focus of media attention."  
 
In defending their request for anonymity, the NRA and plaintiffs rely almost entirely on the experiences of Marion Hammer — a former president of the NRA and current lobbyist for the organization who has received offensive and threatening emails and phone calls — as proof that the Florida case is too controversial for the plaintiffs to use their names. However, the media coalition calls the comparison an "unwarranted logical leap," noting that Hammer's status as an influential, high-profile gun lobbyist makes her much more likely to be subjected to threats than two private citizens.  
 
The full media coalition brief can be found here.