Can you sue for libel and then keep your name a secret?

People are saying mean things about you. You’d like to sue them to get them to stop. Can you do this and maintain your privacy — including keeping your name a secret?

This principle is being tested right now in Cincinnati. Bloggers accused a police officer of flashing a white power sign at protestors and being a racist. He’s suing the bloggers, and the judge has required that elements of his identity — including his name — should be kept secret as part of the suit.

There’s a lot of weird in this one.

  • In Reason, Eugene Volokh argues this is unconstitutional prior restraint, since it seeks to block speech that hasn’t happened yet and hasn’t yet been ruled libelous.
  • Techdirt points out that a ban on mentioning the name of someone suing for libel is unprecedented (at least in the US).

As you’ve probably gathered by now, the officer is becoming a victim of the Streisand effect. The injunction not to mention his name is causing his name to become famous. I’m afraid to publish it, but others certainly aren’t, and I’m not afraid to link to what they’ve written. Google already shows 204 results on “officer” along with his name in quotes, including links to the Cincinnati Enquirer, TV station WLWT, Newsweek, and social media sites including Reddit, Twitter, and 4Chan.

Can you protect your privacy?

The simple answer is, no.

If you post online, people can discover you.

If others post about you online, as these bloggers did to the police officer, then your name is out there.

If you want to stop them, you may have to sue them. And that means your name will be out there even more.

“I am innocent” is something you can say, and reasonably enforce.

“I am invisible” is not something you can say, and is impossible to enforce.

This isn’t a state of affairs we can all feel comfortable about.

If you think the identity of this policeman deserves to be protected, what about the anonymous whistleblower in the Trump/Ukraine case at the center of the impeachment inquiry? Trump attempted to tweet his name.

What about rape victims?

There’s no easy way to protect people’s identities.

But one thing I am comfortable with: if you sue for libel, you don’t get you keep your name a secret. The judge who has tried to do that for the officer a the center of this case will most likely fail.

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