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Facebook Threats Stay in Ten Commandments Suit

(CN) - A mother who received online threats after challenging a Ten Commandments monument can submit the threats as evidence to support requests for anonymity, a federal judge ruled.

In a September 2012 complaint against the New Kensington-Arnold School District in Pittsburgh, the Freedom from Religion Foundation joined several parents and students to challenge a Ten Commandments monument at Valley High School. Though the two students and one of their parents filed suit as Does 1, 2 and 3, one of the parents used her name.

In November, the plaintiffs filed a consent motion to proceed using pseudonyms and for protective order. Supporting their motion, the group appended various threats that they received in the previous weeks. The evidence included screenshots of numerous Facebook pages, local news stories, emails to their attorneys with Steele Schneider, and sworn affidavits from the parents and two others.

The district moved to strike on Nov. 29, objecting to the "immaterial and inflammatory allegations" of the exhibits.

Though the court partially granted the motion to use pseudonyms on Nov. 30, the plaintiffs insisted that their evidence should remain in the case docket.

U.S. District Judge Terrence McVerry agreed and vacated the Nov. 30 order to more fully address the merits.

"As an initial matter, the identity of the Doe litigants has been kept confidential throughout this entire process and the only named party has submitted a sworn declaration that her decision to be identified has resulted in threats and harassment," McVerry wrote. "A number of the threats referenced in her affidavit have extended beyond ad hominem rhetoric, although they certainly appear, to include threats of violence and ostracism. The Doe litigants, two of whom are students in the school district, now advance their request to proceed pseudonymously based on their desire to avoid receiving similar treatment.

"The court finds that this basis upon which the Does fear disclosure is substantial and that there is a substantial public interest in ensuring that litigants not face such retribution in their attempt to seek redress for what they view as a constitutional violation, a pure legal issue," he added.

Though there is public interest for access to the plaintiffs' identities, it does not outweigh the other evidence.

"The issue in this case does not turn on the identity of the plaintiff, and at this juncture, the court does not see how denying plaintiffs' request will interfere with the public's right to follow the proceedings, which will be kept open to the public while maintaining the confidentiality of the Does' identities," the seven-page opinion states. "The Doe plaintiffs are not public figures and the district neither objects nor offers evidence that granting the request would in any way create some undue hardship."

With anonymity intact, the district cannot strike the very information that supported the decision, according to the ruling.

"This information is beyond the reach of a properly filed motion to strike," McVerry wrote.

Freedom from Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based "non-theist" group that advocates for the separation of church and state.

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