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At Supreme Court: Privacy for those who sign petitions to curb gay rights?

The Supreme Court on Wednesday hears a case about a petition to repeal a gay rights law in Washington State – namely, whether petitioners should be able to keep their names from becoming public.

By Staff writer / April 27, 2010


The US Supreme Court is set to hear a case Wednesday that tests the right of gay marriage opponents in Washington State to keep their identities private, even when they sign a public petition calling for the repeal of a gay rights law.

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The case represents the latest flash point in a national debate over gay marriage that some analysts say is inevitably headed to the high court. How the court resolves the Washington State dispute may influence the tactics and tone of both sides in contentious campaigns for and against government recognition of gay marriage.

Gay marriage opponents are organizing efforts to fight – and, if necessary, repeal – gay rights advances at the state level. On the other side, some gay rights activists are embracing an aggressive program using the Internet to publicize the names, home addresses, employment, and other associations of gay rights opponents. The activists then encourage boycotts and confrontations to punish gay rights opponents for their political advocacy.

That was the situation in Washington State last year, when a group, Protect Marriage Washington, collected 122,000 valid signatures to force a statewide vote to repeal a recently passed domestic partnership law.

Referendum 71 was set for a vote in November 2009. The question was whether Washington’s same-sex domestic partnership law should be approved or repealed. (Voters ultimately decided to approve it, 53 to 47 percent.)

A request to see the names on the petitions

Three groups supporting same-sex marriage entered the fray, seeking to block the referendum. All three filed public documents requests, seeking disclosure of the signed petitions that authorized the referendum.

Protect Marriage Washington objected to the public disclosure of the names on the petitions and other identifying information, citing harassment and death threats received by gay rights opponents involved in the Proposition 8 campaign in California. The Washington State group requested and obtained a temporary restraining order blocking public release of the names.

In granting the order, a federal judge ruled that disclosing the names would violate the petition signers’ First Amendment right to engage in anonymous political speech.

“At this time the court is not persuaded that full public disclosure of referendum petitions is necessary as an important check on the integrity of the referendum election process,” the court said. The judge noted that the state had already verified the authenticity of the signatures on the petitions.

Washington official would allow release of the names

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed appealed. The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district judge, saying that signing a referendum petition is not a form of anonymous political speech protected by the First Amendment.

The appeals court panel saw no reason the petition names could not be made public. The panel lifted the judge’s restraining order, clearing the way for the immediate public disclosure of the names.

Protect Marriage Washington appealed to the US Supreme Court, which reinstated the federal judge’s restraining order and agreed to hear the appeal.