A staunch privacy advocate might want anonymity preserved in all those scenarios. Others would root for different outcomes in each situation.
Now consider the list more broadly. Hypothetically, what if it were the case that the first 55 entries were contributed by different journalists invited to edit the spreadsheet by its creator, but that the remaining entries were all submitted by a single IP address associated with a prominent alt-right troll, despite no apparent personal or professional overlap with any of the accused men? Forced to choose between making all or none of the IP addresses public—exposing victims of sexual misbehavior to scrutiny on one hand, preventing wrongly accused men from obtaining information that would clear their names on the other—what would you do?
Now imagine future cases that could be affected by the precedent set in this one.
Say that a group of fraternity boys collaborate on a shared Google spreadsheet that purports to list all the women with whom they’ve slept and to rate their sexual performance. The list becomes public, and one of the women on it seeks discovery so that she can sue whoever anonymously lied that he slept with her, hated it, and observed that she has herpes. Do you want case law that absolutely protects the rights of those fraternity boys to anonymous speech?
Or what if a small group of reform-minded police officers were concerned about corrupt colleagues wrongfully arresting innocents? They collaborate on a shared Google spreadsheet, flagging suspicious incidents and the officers involved in them as they contemplate what to do. Go to Internal Affairs? Alert the media? Share their worries with the district attorney? Tip off the public defender’s office? Before they decide, the document leaks, and an officer described as “infamous for planting evidence” sues to get the names of everyone who contributed to it. The contributors fear career consequences as well as violent retaliation. Do you want case law that leaves them without any right to anonymity?
One can imagine different “middle ground” precedents. If you could put forth an opinion that established the guiding language, what would it be?
Let’s imagine one more future case. Unnamed college students at a public university start a website called Make Them Scared, where they solicit and publish anonymous allegations of rape, sexual assault, and other sexual misconduct, noting, “We do not have the ability to absolutely determine whether any accused party is guilty of the accused acts … so take all names listed with a grain of salt.” That isn’t an imagined hypothetical like the other cases. It is going on right now at the University of Washington, according to an article in The Stranger by Katie Herzog.
Clearly, the anonymity questions raised in the lawsuit against Moira Donegan and her collaborators will not end with this case. And regardless of what information the plaintiff gets, the case against Donegan, whose identity is obviously known, raises its own thorny questions, including the distinction between acting as a publisher and providing a mere platform where others contribute information.
That aspect of the case will be discussed in an upcoming article.
For now, I invite you to email firstname.lastname@example.org with any thoughts, comments, insights, or questions related to privacy and anonymity. What do you think would be the proper ruling here, and why? Can you think of hypothetical cases that might help to test our intuitions? What precedents would you find most salubrious or worrisome? And if you’re a legal expert, how do you think the case will actually go?