A federal appeals court in Boston heard arguments in a case that could make it harder for students to maintain their anonymity when suing colleges over the handling of complaints related to sexual misconduct, Politico reports. Lawyers for Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a former computer engineering student at the prestigious school squared off over a lower-court judge’s denial of the former student’s request that he be allowed to proceed as “John Doe” in the case and that the fellow student who accused him of misconduct also be identified by a pseudonym in court filings. Attorney Philip Byler told the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the ruling from U.S. District Court Judge Richard Stearns requiring that the plaintiff either file under his true name or dismiss the suit was unfair and contrary to the custom in such cases. The decision by Stearns could discourage some suits against colleges and universities over their campus discipline processes, particularly in cases involving allegations of sexual misconduct or sexual assault. The suit that led to Wednesday’s arguments was filed last year after MIT kicked out a male student accused of having sexual intercourse with a former girlfriend while she was asleep.
Byler said the tradition of allowing parties to proceed by pseudonyms in litigation involving intimate matters goes back decades. However, Judge Bruce Selya noted that many sorts of litigation involve sensitive personal matters, but typically proceed with parties using their real names, such as in personal injury cases. Byler said his client’s career as a software engineer would be upended if his name were published. “Anybody who thinks that if you’re identified with a sexual misconduct finding that that’s not going to hurt you, they are totally mistaken,” he said, adding that strong lawsuits would likely never be filed if doing so meant going public. MIT lawyer Scott Roberts said lawyers for the student suing simply failed to show that he would face the sort of severe harm that would justify secrecy. Roberts said MIT would not oppose anonymity in all cases and might agree to it if a student faced unusual harm from disclosure of his or her identity. “It’s not a blanket rule,” he said, adding that immigration status might be a legitimate reason for secrecy. The appeals judges seemed unlikely to overturn Stearns' decision outright. There was some discussion of allowing the plaintiff to take another run at requesting secrecy in the case by submitting more details of the potential impact of publicity. However, some lawyers who represent alleged victims in campus sexual misconduct cases are backing the accused student’s position, arguing that the victims might also be identified publicly or be ordered released if the accused’s name cannot be kept under wraps.