TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Media organizations from across the country are urging a federal appeals court to reject an attempt to allow two teens to remain anonymous in a challenge to a new Florida gun law.
A brief filed last week on behalf of 21 organizations argued that allowing the teens to take part in the challenge as Jane Doe and John Doe would hinder public access to court proceedings. The National Rifle Association filed the challenge in March to a law that increased from 18 to 21 the minimum age to buy rifles and other long guns in Florida.
“(The NRA and teens’) allegations in this case are --- as they themselves argue --- significant matters of public concern, especially because their challenges are framed as an assertion of their constitutional rights, and seek ultimately to invalidate legislation,” said the 40-page document, filed by attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The testimony by and concerning Does (the teens) could very well affect the ultimate outcome of this case. Open litigation, with full disclosure of the parties’ identities, will allow the public to better understand and assess the parties’ competing claims, and their credibility, and to make informed judgments about the administration of justice in this case.”
The filing Friday at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta is the latest move in a case that stems from lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott approving gun restrictions after the February mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 people.
The NRA quickly filed a federal lawsuit challenging the age change for purchasing guns and later sought to add a 19-year-old Alachua County resident as a plaintiff and identify her as Jane Doe. It also sought to add to the case allegations related to another 19-year-old identified as John Doe.
But Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office has fought allowing the teens to take part in the case anonymously, and U.S. District Judge Mark Walker in May agreed with the state’s legal position. That prompted the NRA to take the anonymity issue to the appeals court. The underlying lawsuit challenging the gun law remains pending.
The NRA has argued in court documents that anonymity is needed because of concerns for the safety of the teens. As part of its case, the NRA has cited threatening and often-vile emails received by longtime NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer.
“Jane Doe and John Doe, two 19-year-old Florida citizens, seek to participate in this lawsuit challenging Florida’s age-based ban on the purchase of firearms anonymously, based on the reasonable, documented fear that they would suffer harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence if their true identities and participation in this controversial litigation were made public,” said a brief filed in June by the NRA’s attorneys. “Under the standard for pseudonymous pleading established by this court’s precedents, Jane and John Doe should clearly be allowed to remain anonymous.”
The attorneys for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed the friend-of-the-court brief Friday on behalf of organizations ranging from the American Society of News Editors to The Dallas Morning News. Among the organizations were The McClatchy Co., which operates the Miami Herald and Bradenton Herald newspapers, and South Florida’s WPLG television station.
In addition to raising arguments about public access to court proceedings, the media organizations disputed the NRA’s argument that the teens need to remain anonymous for safety reasons.
“Put simply, the record before this court is devoid of any factual basis on which to conclude that there would be a legitimate risk of retaliation against Does themselves if their identities were revealed in this litigation,” the brief said. “Permitting Does to proceed pseudonymously in this case would provide grounds for any plaintiff asserting a ‘controversial’ claim to do so. Such broad use of pseudonymity is impermissible.”