The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Free Speech

No Pseudonymity for Student Challenging University Discipline in Non-Sexual-Assault/Harassment Case

"The disciplinary proceedings arose from Plaintiff's development of an 'artificial intelligence-based learning tool,' with another student, which the University's Honor Council eventually concluded 'was offensive to Emory's community standards' as it might result in academic dishonesty and cheating."


From Doe v. Emory Univ., decided Friday by Judge Steve Jones (N.D. Ga.):

Plaintiff … alleges that Defendant, Emory University, breached its contract with him as a student in the disciplinary proceedings against him, which resulted in his suspension. The disciplinary proceedings arose from Plaintiff's development of an "artificial intelligence-based learning tool," with another student, which the University's Honor Council eventually concluded "was offensive to Emory's community standards" as it might result in academic dishonesty and cheating….

Plaintiff seeks to proceed anonymously in this litigation, as well as to keep the identity of Emory Student 1 anonymous….

Generally, all pleadings filed in federal court must "name all the parties[.]" Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(a)…. The Eleventh Circuit has approved of parties proceeding anonymously when cases involve governmental activity, the disclosure of information of "utmost intimacy," or would require admitting to illegal conduct and risk of criminal prosecution. …

The Court acknowledges Plaintiff's concerns regarding his reputation. The Court, however, disagrees that Plaintiff should be allowed to proceed anonymously in this case. The ordinary factors permitting a party to continue under a pseudonym are absent: Plaintiff is not challenging government activity, is not a minor, has not identified any threat of physical violence against him, and has not specifically shown his accusations require the disclosure of intimate information.

Plaintiff cites several cases involving student lawsuits against universities arising from disciplinary proceedings. Each case identified, however, involved allegations of sexual harassment or assault…. Here, the nature of the charges Plaintiff brings against Defendant, and the underlying factual basis for those charges, is not the same as the sensitive and personal allegations of sexual assault or harassment in these prior cases involving university  student  disciplinary  proceedings. Nor does Plaintiff assert any other basis that sufficiently outweighs Rule 10's requirement that parties' names be identified and the public's interest in open judicial proceedings.

The Court does not intend for this determination to suggest that all information in this case will or should necessarily be made public. Indeed, there are other ways to protect specific information in litigation. See, e.g., Fed. R. Civ. 26(c) (allowing for protective orders for "protect[ing] a party or person from annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue burden or expense" upon a showing of "good cause"). The fact that these other means exist and are—in the Court's view—better suited to address Plaintiff's instant concerns also indicates that Plaintiff proceeding anonymously is not required to achieve the protection he seeks. Thus, the Court makes clear that while it will not allow Plaintiff to proceed anonymously, it will consider any future protective orders regarding Plaintiff's personal information or Emory Student 1's identity or personal information, as can be supported by the requisite good cause….

Here's the background factual allegation behind the case (recall that this is just an allegation):

In the spring of 2023, Doe and his friend—referred to here as "Emory Student 1″—presented Eightball to Emory students, faculty, and alumni at the university's annual student entrepreneurial business pitch competition ("Pitch the Summit" competition), and Emory awarded Eightball the $10,000 grand prize.

While nothing about Eightball changed, Emory's view of Eightball changed dramatically. Approximately six months after Emory celebrated and funded Eightball's development, Emory's Honor Council concluded that Eightball was offensive to Emory's community standards because Eightball—like a calculator, search engines like Google, and so many other technological tools—"could be used for cheating." To be clear, Doe never cheated, and Emory never alleged that he did. In fact, Emory concedes that there is no evidence that anyone has ever used Eightball to cheat. And to this day Emory advertises Eightball as an example of student innovation and entrepreneurship.

In concluding that Doe violated the Honor Code, Emory failed to abide by its established procedures and standards, intentionally breaching its contract with Doe as a university student. Emory's farcical proceeding and subsequent discipline, if permitted to stand, will unfairly cause Doe to miss a semester of his senior year of college, prevent him from writing an honors thesis, delay his graduation, inhibit his postgraduate educational and career opportunities, and permanently tarnish his reputation.