LIM COLLEGE FACULTY BLOG
Cyberbullying & Anonymity in Lawsuits
posted by Gavin Goldstein, Esq.
Gavin Goldstein is an attorney and a full-time faculty member in LIM College’s Marketing, Management & Finance department.
On October 3, 2016, the Los Angeles Times published the article "A Rape Lawsuit Against NBA Star Derrick Rose Raises Key Question: Should an Accuser Be Allowed to Stay Anonymous?"I had been researching the issue of anonymity in lawsuits for a former law professor’s law review article before the LA Times published this article. On October 26, I gave a presentation on “Cyberbullying & Anonymity in Lawsuits” as part of LIM College’s Marcuse Lecture Series for faculty and staff.
Cyberbullying, reprisal, intimidation, and similar issues make certain types of cases too risky for most plaintiffs to file. In these kind of cases, the question is whether courts should allow plaintiffs to proceed anonymously.
Judges have allowed people who brought civil cases involving rape allegations or other highly sensitive matters to keep their identities cloaked at trial. Perhaps the most notable is the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade, in which the plaintiff was known as Jane Roe.
In the case of Derrick Rose, the plaintiff filed the case anonymously, but the court ruled the anonymous plaintiff would have to be named. (Rose and his co-defendants were ultimately found not guilty.)
Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place using electronic technology. Examples of cyberbullying include hostile text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.
In a March 2015 report, CNN discussed the issue of cyberbullying in college. College students, frequent users of digital technology and social media sites, remain susceptible to cyberbullying.
According to a study from the University of Washington that surveyed 265 women enrolled in four colleges, college-age females were just as likely to suffer the negative effects of cyberbullying as younger adolescents.
One of instance of cyberbullying that relates to the issue of anonymity took place in 2011. Atheist high school student Jessica Ahlquist sued the City of Cranston, Rhode Island, seeking removal of a large prayer mural posted on the wall of her high school’s auditorium. After the lawsuit was filed, Ahlquist was “subject to frequent taunting and threats at school, as well as a virtual online hate campaign via Facebook.” She received death threats, many on Twitter, and required police escorts to and from classes.
Some of the hateful social media comments included: “Everyone’s harassing her but who’s she going to report it to? [The school?] The administrators probably hate her.” “I’m sabatoging [sic] her site on Facebook. Let’s just say it’s going to be nuts.” “But for real, somebody should jump the girl. LMAO – let’s do it.” “I’ve decided I’m going to eat her family.”
On a popular radio show, a state representative from her town called her “an evil little thing.” Ahlquist was forced to take time off from school, but ultimately won the case.
The interest of maintaining privacy is balanced with the public’s interests in knowing the plaintiff’s identity. The court also must consider fairness to the defendant. A defendant may be required to defend himself publicly while the plaintiff could make accusations from behind a cloak of anonymity.
As the internet becomes more and more of a common fixture in our world, cyberbullying has become more of an issue. Plaintiffs must weigh the effect that cyberbullying will have on them before filing a public lawsuit and those that do begin lawsuits may be pressured to end cases as a result of cyberbullying. Many states have statutes or court rules that address anonymity in cases involving juveniles or victims of sex crimes, but courts continue to balance the issue of anonymity in the age of cyberbullying.