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Federal judge rejects second plea for anonymity in UW sorority lawsuit to remove transgender student

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A federal court judge has once again denied a request for anonymity in a lawsuit involving a University of Wyoming (UW) sorority chapter.

In a lawsuit filed last month, seven UW Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority members claim the presence of a transgender woman in their chapter has made them feel unsafe. They are seeking her removal from the chapter.

The lawsuit was filed anonymously, with the sorority members listed as Jane Does I-VII.

But Judge Alan B. Johnson has now ruled a second time that they must refile under their own names. The plaintiffs have until Thursday, April 20, to refile with their real names.

The plaintiffs argue feelings run hot and violence is possible on this issue. But the judge said they failed to show they are in any "real, imminent personal danger."

"I find that Plaintiffs' 'exigent' circumstances remain unexceptional," the judge wrote. "Plaintiffs must show that they face 'real, imminent personal danger' sufficient to overcome the 'public's interest in open court proceedings.'"

The sorority members had pointed to a number of recent high profile Wyoming cases in their plea for anonymity. They highlighted death threats made against a church elder who harassed the same transgender student they're seeking to remove from the sorority; they also highlighted recent rhetoric, memes and tragedies that have been folded into the national debate surrounding the inclusion of transgender people in wider society.

The topic has been especially salient in Wyoming, where the State Legislature fought over several pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation and passed a law banning transgender women and girls from competing in high school sports.

Judge Johnson admitted a plaintiff's reasonable expectation of safety has changed in the internet age.

"I yearn for the day where litigants seek their courts unburdened by the mere possibility of physical reprisal," he wrote. "That hope may be quixotic today. The digital age is one of comprehensive access, whether via electronic case files, search engines, or Twitter updates. Gone are the days where motions and orders collected dust in the anachronistic file rooms below this courthouse. Litigants' privacy expectations have too changed. Federal lawsuits are, more and more, above-the-fold news."

Johnson then cited a recent Southern District of New York ruling, which adds, "But the threat of significant media attention — however exacerbated in the modern era — alone does not entitle the plaintiff to the exceptional remedy of anonymity."

The judge wrote anonymity is only granted in "exceptional" cases, such as when an inmate testifies against other inmates, who might retaliate with physical or sexual violence against him. Otherwise, the public's right to know who is making the accusations is considered more important.

"Plaintiffs have chosen to level accusations of impropriety against Defendants. They must now shoulder the burden of those accusations and walk in the public eye," Johnson wrote. "Balancing the public interest against Plaintiffs' showings of personal physical harm, I arrive where I landed last week: this is not one of those few exceptional cases involving a real danger of physical harm."

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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