2008 Joe Francis Lawsuit Morphs into Free Speech Test Case

ATLANTA—A 2008 lawsuit against Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis and two companies he operates, filed by four women who accused the GGW team of filming them flashing their breasts when they were underage, has become a free speech test case that was argued today before a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

At issue before the appeals court are not the facts of the original case but whether attorneys for the women can keep their clients’ names private as they pursue the original litigation. The original complaint, which was filed in a Florida court in March 2008, identified the plaintiffs by their initials only. The women, who were filmed by GGW crews in Panama City, Fla., in March 2002, are now in their 20s.

The attempt to reinsert the women’s full names into the public record is now being led by Florida Freedom Newspapers Inc. and the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association (SNPA), which became involved following an appeal by the plaintiff’s attorneys of a decision by the trial judge not to allow the women to file the lawsuit without using their names.

Today, before the appellate court panel, the women’s attorney, Rachael Pontikes, argued that if named the women will continue to reap the same treatment that was inflicted upon them years ago, when the videos were first released and they were ridiculed, ostracized and eventually forced to leave school.

"Their names are going to be everywhere" if they are made public, the attorney countered today in the Atlanta courtroom. "Whenever anyone types any of their names on Google, they will link to these sexualized images."

SNPA attorneys, who filed an amicus brief in July of this year, argued that the press must have access to the women’s names and be the entity to decide whether they are published or not.

"It ought to be up to the press to manage this information—and not up to the courts," said John Bussian, an attorney for the group.

According to The New York Times, “[Pontikes] countered that journalists would not be blocked from covering the trial, just from publishing the plaintiffs' names. Pontikes also argued that the media groups failed to establish why the names would ever by newsworthy.

The three-judge panel echoed those concerns, reported the Times, which said Chief Judge Joel Dubina pressed the media attorneys several times to explain the harm journalists would face if the plaintiffs were allowed to remain anonymous.

"The editorial process is based on access to openness," said Jeffery Nobles, an attorney for the newspapers association. "And the purpose of fact-checking is obscured and prevented when parties come to court anonymously."

The original complaint can be read here.