- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 26, 2010

ATLANTA | A lawsuit filed by four women against Joe Francis, producer of the “Girls Gone Wild” videos, has prompted an unusual free-speech battle over whether the identities of the four should be kept under wraps.

Attorneys for the women, who were between 13 and 17 years old when the footage was shot, asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday to allow them to press their civil suit against the Girls Gone Wild chief executive without being named.

The lawyers argued that keeping the identities private would spare the women, who are now in their 20s, from unnecessary humiliation.

The women filed suit in federal court in Florida in March 2008 using only their initials. The lawsuit claims Francis exploited them by filming them flashing their breasts and engaging in other sexual activities in Panama City, Fla. It claims the women were ridiculed, ostracized and forced to leave school when videos were released.

“Their names are going to be everywhere” if they are made public, lawyer Rachael Pontikes argued before a judge in the Atlanta courtroom. “Whenever anyone types any of their names on Google, they will link to these sexualized images.”

The free-speech battle flared when a federal judge in Florida rejected the request to allow the women to file the lawsuit without using their names, prompting an appeal. That led Florida Freedom Newspapers Inc. and the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association to wade into the First Amendment fight.

Their attorneys contend news organizations have the right to know the names of the plaintiffs in a case of wide national interest and that journalists should have the right to exercise their discretion whether to publish that information — including names of the plaintiffs — if deemed newsworthy.

Francis has pleaded guilty to criminal charges of not having kept proper records involving one of the plaintiffs, and he was convicted in state court in Florida of coercing another one of the plaintiffs into prostitution as a minor for paying her $50 to appear on camera.

Francis, who built a soft-core porn empire producing and marketing videos of young women exposing themselves on camera, has been targeted with dozens of lawsuits from women who said they were upset at being filmed.

John Bussian, an attorney for Florida Freedom Newspapers Inc., which owns dozens of U.S. newspapers, argued that the press and public have an interest that stands at an “equal footing with a defendant” when such a lawsuit reaches the trial stage.

“It ought to be up to the press to manage this information, and not up to the courts,” he argued.

The attorney for the women countered that journalists would not be blocked from covering the trial, just from publishing the plaintiffs’ names. Miss Pontikes also argued that the media groups failed to establish why the names would ever by newsworthy.

The three-judge panel echoed those concerns during questioning. Chief Judge Joel Dubina pressed the media lawyers several times to explain whether journalists would face any harm if the plaintiffs remained anonymous.

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