TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The National Rifle Association is appealing a federal judge’s refusal to keep the identity of a 19-year-old Alachua County woman secret in a challenge to a state law that raised the age to purchase rifles and other long guns.
The case was placed on hold Friday pending a decision regarding “Jane Doe” from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to court documents.
The gun-rights group filed the appeal after U.S. District Judge Mark Walker this week decided that previous court rulings forced him to reject the request to keep the identity of “Jane Doe” private.
The NRA requested the use of the pseudonym for Jane Doe and “John Doe,” another 19-year-old who is part of the case. The request was based largely on a declaration filed by the group’s Florida lobbyist, Marion Hammer, who detailed threatening emails she had received featuring derogatory words for parts of the female anatomy.
“It’s time somebody stood up for the First Amendment right to go into court to fight to protect our Second Amendment right without being victimized by hatemongers who threaten you and your family,” Hammer, a onetime president of the national gun-rights organization, told The News Service of Florida on Friday.
The debate over the pseudonyms came in a lawsuit filed March 9 by the NRA, just hours after Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a sweeping school-safety measure that included new gun-related restrictions. The legislation was a rapid response to the Feb. 14 shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 students and faculty members dead and 17 others wounded.
The law raised from 18 to 21 the minimum age to purchase rifles and other long guns. It also imposed a three-day waiting period on the sale of long guns, such as the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz last year legally purchased and is accused of using in the Valentine’s Day massacre at his former high school.
In late April, the NRA filed a motion to add “Jane Doe” as a plaintiff to the lawsuit, which contends the age restriction in the new law “violates the fundamental rights of thousands of responsible, law-abiding adult Florida citizens and is thus invalid under the Second and Fourteenth Amendments.”
The NRA asked Walker to allow the woman to remain anonymous due to fear that public exposure could result in “harassment, intimidation, and potentially even physical violence.”
But, representing the state, lawyers for Attorney General Pam Bondi argued the request for anonymity “does not provide a sufficient basis for overcoming the strong presumption in favor of open judicial proceedings.”
Suggesting that the courts have not kept up with the times, a reluctant Walker agreed.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear the appeal, “has made it clear that pseudonyms may only be used in ‘exceptional’ cases … and that there is ‘a strong presumption in favor of parties’ proceeding in their own names,’ ” the judge wrote in a 17-page opinion Sunday.
The relatively rare circumstances where pseudonyms are allowed involve issues such as abortion, prayer and personal religious beliefs, Walker wrote.
Based on precedent, “this court finds that mere evidence of threats and harassment made online is insufficient to outweigh the customary and constitutionally-embedded presumption of openness in judicial proceedings,” Walker wrote. “This is especially true where the targets of such threats and harassment are not minors and where the subject at issue does not involve matters of utmost intimacy.”
But, expressing sympathy for Jane and John Doe, Walker wrote that the factors laid out in the previous decisions fail to take into account “concerns about the potential harassment and threats they face.”
“To be clear, this court does not intend to diminish those concerns,” he added.
In a joint motion filed Friday, lawyers for the NRA and the state asked Walker to put the case on hold until the Atlanta-based appellate court decides on the pseudonyms. The judge agreed.
In a footnote in Sunday’s order, Walker called the messages sent to Hammer “hateful and abhorrent” and of such an “offensive nature” that he would not repeat them in his ruling.
“The attorney general has made it clear that she won’t agree to protecting a 19-year-old woman from bullying, harassment, threats of death or injury, and Judge Walker doesn’t seem to think he has the authority or that it’s his job to protect her, so maybe a higher court will,” Hammer said.
In Sunday’s order, Walker noted that the world has changed since the courts established the standards allowing the use of pseudonyms.
“Today we have the internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle. What this means is that if a person attaches their name to a lawsuit -- and especially if that lawsuit is sensational -- then everyone will quickly be made aware of it. Articles get posted online, and the responding comments, tweets, and whatever-else-have-yous often devolve into a rhetorical barrage of hate. Unfortunately, it seems the internet just doesn’t always bring out the best in us,” he wrote.
“Maybe the law should be modified to reflect these changes. But it’s not this court’s job to change the law; this court’s job is to apply the law,” Walker wrote. “And the law unfortunately directs that the NRA’s motion must be denied.”