Pseudonymity Allowed in Challenge to Denial of Religious Exemption to Vaccine Requirement

In today’s order of Judge Steve Merryday Navy Seal 1 v. Austin (M.D. Fla.):

The plaintiffs acknowledge the existence of a “presumption that identities of parties are public information”, but they argue that there is a privacy interest that can be protected under the applicable governing authority. According to the plaintiffs, the protection of medical and personal information as well as privacy about their religious beliefs and practices, along with the potential of stigma, ostracization and retaliation for other harms (including threats of violence), require that a pseudonym be used.

Correctly, the plaintiffs point out that religion may not be a public matter. The plaintiffs are required to reveal their religious convictions and the personal stories that shaped them. For example, Lieutenant Colonel 2 opposes any vaccine associated with aborted fetal cell lines because she received an abortion after suffering a rape and later—through her religious devotion—believes herself forgiven, according to her beliefs, for the sin of abortion. Although the defendants argue that the plaintiffs’ vaccination status “is not a matter of utmost intimacy,” this action encompasses substantially more intimate detail than whether a person chose to accept a vaccine.

Plaintiffs further point to a number of other recent or similar actions, or very close to it, that allow pseudonyms for exactly the same reasons. See, e.g., Does 1–6 v. Mills (D. Me. 2021); Austin v. Air Force Officer (M.D. Ga. 2022). Mills The “reasonable fear that harm outweighs public interest” is recognized because there is “substantial public debate currently surrounding private mandates for individuals to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or proof of their vaccination status.” Mills(Permission to act pseudonymously for healthcare workers who object to the COVID-19 vaccination requirements). As in MillsIn this lawsuit, plaintiffs are challenging the government regarding the controversial COVID-19 vaccination requirement. These statements and other incidents are sufficient to show, as well as everyday experience over the past weeks and months, that there is a bitter public atmosphere about vaccines and masks.

Innominating the plaintiffs does little to harm their safety and privacy. The public’s interest in this action is satisfied by the facts patent in the record—the branches of the armed forces involved; the rank, duty, service record, and the like of the litigants; the nature of the claims and defenses; and the orders of the court. The names add nothing substantial, but enable those who—through “social media,” as well as more immediate mechanisms—intimidate, harass, and defame.

It is not clear whether pseudonymity can be allowed to safeguard information regarding people’s religious beliefs, or about having experienced abortions. In my forthcoming publication, I will cover 52-53 (abortion), and 59-61 (“religious beliefs”) Pseudonymous Litigation Law.