Florida court issues pro-anonymity decision

Website operators do not have to disclose names of financial contributors.

In 1959 the U.S. Supreme Court held that the NAACP did not have to disclose the names of its members because to do so would violate the members’ right to freedom of assembly. NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449 (1959).

On March 24, 2006, the Florida Court of Appeal held, on similar grounds, that financial supporters of a website that is used to fund litigation against the city of Maitland, Florida could remain anonymous.

Michael and Joan Matthews believed that the city of Maitland did not follow proper procedures when it approved the development of a seven-story, multi-use structure. They filed a lawsuit challenging the development, and started a website through which supporters could donate funds.

When the city took Joan Matthews’s deposition, she would not disclose the names of the contributors to the website. Similarly, Michael Matthews would not answer written interrogatories on the subject. The city filed a motion to compel the plaintiffs to turn over the names of their contributors, and the trial court granted the motion. The plaintiffs sought review of the trial court’s order, and the Court of Appeal reversed.

The appellate court noted the chilling effect that could occur if supporters of political causes who wished to remain anonymous ran the risk of being revealed in litigation of this sort. Because the names of the supporters was not relevant to the underlying dispute over the real estate development, disclosure would be improper. The court further observed that:

[T]he freedom to associate for the advancement of beliefs, whether pertaining to political, economic, religious or cultural matters, is an inseparable aspect of the liberty assured by the due process clause and . . . the compelled disclosure of membership in an organization engaged in advocacy constitutes an interference with the right to freedom of assembly.

Matthews v. City of Maitland, — So.2d —, 2006 WL 733966 (Fla. App. 5 Dist. March 24, 2006).