Northwestern graduate student files request for pseudonym in lawsuit; Laura Kipnis, HarperCollins oppose


Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Communication Prof. Laura Kipnis, shown here on Thursday, June 4, 2015, was investigated for complaints that she violated the federal Title IX law against gender discrimination with her essay “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” Kipnis has filed a motion to dismiss a Northwestern student’s lawsuit against her.

Matthew Choi, Reporter

Communication Prof. Laura Kipnis and publishing house HarperCollins Publishers LLC filed an opposition June 9 to a motion from a Northwestern graduate student to continue using a pseudonym in her lawsuit against HarperCollins and Kipnis.

The lawsuit, filed May 16 by the graduate student under the pseudonym Jane Doe, follows the April 4 release of Kipnis’ book, “Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus,” which HarperCollins published. The suit alleges the book released private details about Doe’s life and contained “false and damaging statements” about Doe, portraying her as “lying, manipulative, and litigious.”

The book, which Kipnis calls a polemic, critiques Northwestern’s Title IX process by describing Kipnis’ own experience with the procedure and her interpretation of separate incidents of two students — including Doe — filing sexual assault complaints against former philosophy Prof. Peter Ludlow.

Kipnis and a HarperCollins spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. Jennifer Salvatore and Julie Porter, attorneys representing Doe, also declined to comment.

Doe filed a motion June 6 to proceed with the lawsuit under a pseudonym, arguing that publicizing her name would cause additional harm to her personal and professional reputation. The motion claims because the book describes Doe to the point of recognition — though it uses a pseudonym — and Doe’s real name has already been published on blogs widely read among philosophy academics, Doe has already “suffered significant harm to her career in academia.”

The motion goes on to say Doe “moves to proceed under pseudonym in this case in order to limit the harm already caused by (Kipnis’) reckless publishing of private and sensitive information about her.”

Kipnis and HarperCollins filed June 7 a notice of intent to file opposition to Doe’s motion. The notice says Doe’s lawyers notified the defendants by phone that they planned to use a pseudonym throughout the case. Kipnis and HarperCollins’ lawyers notified Doe’s lawyers in writing on June 5 that they would oppose a motion for a pseudonym, according to the notice.

The notice also says Doe did not file a notice of motion, which it says is in violation of court rules, and that Doe’s motion for a pseudonym omitted mention of the June 5 communication between the two parties.

Though Doe’s motion mentions that plaintiffs are generally required to state their names in a complaint, it cites precedent of courts granting the use of a pseudonym under limited circumstances, such as when there is potential for retaliation or in certain instances of sexual assault.

The motion cites Doe v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield United of Wisc., a 1997 case in which the use of a pseudonym was allowed. In its decision, the court wrote that “fictitious names are allowed when necessary to protect the privacy of … rape victims, and other particularly vulnerable parties or witnesses.”

Doe’s motion says many of the details in Kipnis’ book relate to confidential University Title IX proceedings and that confidential information is likely to be disclosed during litigation. Using Doe’s legal name would likely cause “disclosure of stigmatizing sexual information, including details of a sexual assault,” according to the motion.

Further, using Doe’s real name would “allow ever widening segments of the public to identify her, thereby adding to her humiliation and compounding the existing harm,” according to the motion. Using Doe’s real name would also subject her to retaliatory harm, according to the motion, as she is suing a “high-profile professor at NU in this action, is still a graduate student and just beginning her academic career.”

The opposition argues that using a pseudonym would be “an extraordinary departure from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure” and would run “counter to the fundamental openness and fairness of the federal courts.”

Doe has already been involved in public litigation on the matter under her real name when Ludlow sued Northwestern for defamation and gender discrimination in 2014, according to the opposition, nullifying justification for litigating under a pseudonym because her name has already been made public in the same court.

“Plaintiff cannot put this cat back in the bag,” the opposition said.

The opposition also argued that because Doe had initiated the lawsuit, “unlike Defendants, (Doe) was not dragged into court against her will.” It cites a ruling in the 2005 case Doe v. Smith, which states that “if the complaint’s allegations are false, then anonymity provides a shield behind which defamatory charges may be launched without shame or liability.”

A status conference for the case is scheduled for July 18.

Peter Kotecki contributed reporting.

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