You sign a petition to curb gay rights. Should your name be public?
The US Supreme Court has decided to hear a case about releasing to the public the names of people who signed a petition. The petition in question called for repealing Washington State's law granting partnership rights to gay couples.
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On Friday, the justices agreed to enter the divisive dispute and decide whether the names of petition signers must be released under a state public records law or instead must be kept private to protect the signers’ right to engage in political speech and political association.
Lawyers for the petition signers say their clients are likely to be subjected to “threats, harassment, and reprisals” if their names are made public.
In September, a federal judge issued an injunction blocking release of the signers’ names and addresses. A month later, a panel of the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction and ruled that the names could be made public. A few days later, the US Supreme Court restored the injunction, pending a decision on whether to hear the case.
A related issue in Proposition 8 trial
The decision to hear the Washington State case comes two days after the high court decided 5-to-4 to block broadcasts of a San Francisco trial challenging the constitutionality of a California referendum that banned gay marriage. The trial judge had approved a plan to permit real-time broadcasts to five federal courthouses around the country. In blocking the plan, the majority justices noted concerns that trial witnesses might be subject to harassment and threats because of their open-court testimony in opposition to gay marriage.
The Washington State case revolves around an unsuccessful effort to repeal a 2009 domestic partnership law that provides same-sex couples the same level of legal protection as married couples, but without using the term marriage.
Opponents gathered 138,500 signatures to place Referendum 71 on the ballot last November. Voters upheld the domestic partnership law 53 percent to 47 percent. But the dispute did not end there.
Several organizations are seeking public release of the Referendum 71 petitions. They include KnowThyNeighbor.org and WhoSigned.org, which have said they intend to post the names of petition supporters on searchable websites to encourage contacts between the signers and gay rights advocates.
A June press release by both organizations denied any intent to intimidate. Instead, a co-director said the Web-based lists are aimed at facilitating conversations between petition signers and friends, relatives, and neighbors. The release says that “these conversations can be uncomfortable for both parties, but that they are desperately needed to break down stereotypes.”
Conversations versus confrontations
James Bopp, lawyer for Protect Marriage Washington, which backed the referendum, disagreed. “These are not ‘conversations’ at all, but confrontations,” he said in his brief.