The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Media Outlets Forbidden from Identifying Recently Released Drug Cartel Ex-Boss as Plaintiff in Privacy Lawsuit


I just learned about the order, which was entered in federal court for the Northern District of California in Oct. 2020 (Doe v. Google, Inc.):

The Court orders that Plaintiff may proceed under a pseudonym[ and] that Defendants are prohibited from disclosing Plaintiff's identity to any third party unless such disclosure is necessary to defend against this action (and if so, with a protective order).

The defendants were Borderland Beat, a prominent and oft-cited blog labeled by one publication as "one of the best resources for current and accurate information on Mexico's bloody drug wars – and its key players"; many Spanish-language publications (El Siglo De Torreon, Noventa Grados, Codigo Rojo Noticias, Infobae, El Manana, Reporte Nivel Uno, Omnia, Valor Tamaulipeco, Reforma, El Norte, Noticias PV Nayarit, Vanguardia); and Google and The plaintiff has been identified in a news account as Armando Valencia Cornelio, former leader of the Milenio Cartel, who had recently been released from federal prison.

The lawsuit was over the publication of various facts about the plaintiff, including "an image of a 30 year-old drivers license," plaintiff's "resettling in Atherton"—the richest town in the U.S.—and plaintiff's "suffer[ing] from lymphoma." I'm skeptical of the substantive merits of the lawsuit, but I certainly think the injunction violates the First Amendment.

Plaintiff eventually dropped the lawsuit, but the injunction may still be in effect. Borderland Beat moved to vacate the injunction, but the court dismissed that motion in June, when it held that "All pending motions filed by defendant Roe 1 are terminated as moot, and any documents that were filed under seal by Roe 1 will remain sealed pending further order." Perhaps that implicitly concludes that the injunction is no longer in effect (since that's the only thing that would make the motion to vacate moot); but that's far from clear, especially since injunctions often do endure past the final judgment in the case. And the very possibility that the injunction is still in effect usually pressures defendants into complying.

Borderland Beat asked the court for leave to file a motion to reconsider, which is what local procedural rules call for in such a situation, but the court has not yet ruled on this (or on the defendant's motion for attorney fees).

I learned of the order because of a Bloomberg search for all recent orders granting or denying motions for pseudonymity, which I conducted for a law review article I'm writing; had it not been for that, I doubt I would have ever seen it.