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Sign a political petition? Supreme Court says the public can know.

The case centered on a Washington State referendum on a domestic partnership law. Fear of harassment, the Supreme Court ruled, is not enough to keep petition signers anonymous.

By Staff writer / June 24, 2010

Petition signatures for Washington State's Referendum 71 on a domestic partnership law. The Supreme Court ruled that those who sign such petitions may not remain anonymous.




Those who sign a petition to place an issue of public dispute onto a statewide ballot may not later claim a broad First Amendment shield of anonymity to prevent disclosure of their names to the public, the US Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

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In an 8-to-1 decision, the high court said public disclosure of referendum petitions does not as a general matter violate the First Amendment. But the court also stressed that under certain circumstances, petition signers may be able to remain anonymous.

“Those resisting disclosure can prevail under the First Amendment if they can show a reasonable probability that the compelled disclosure [of personal information] will subject them to threats, harassment, or reprisals from either government officials or private parties,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion in a case called Doe v. Reed.

The issue arose in Washington State after a group opposed to same-sex marriage sought to repeal a recently passed domestic partnership law. The group wanted the law to reflect that marriage and related legal benefits could only be between a man and a woman.

Group sought to repeal domestic partnership law

The group, Protect Marriage Washington, collected more than 122,000 valid signatures to force state officials to place the question of whether to repeal the law on the ballot in the 2009 election.

Supporters of the recently adopted domestic partnership law fought the petition drive. Some threatened to obtain the names of petition signers and make them public on the Internet to facilitate “uncomfortable” discussions between petition signers and gay-rights activists.

Similar tactics had been used during the same-sex marriage fight over Proposition 8 in California in 2008. Supporters of same-sex marriage obtained campaign contribution records identifying gay-marriage opponents. Once the names were publicized on the Internet and elsewhere, some opponents complained of harassment and even death threats.

Worried that the same might happen in Washington State, Protect Marriage Washington obtained a court-order preventing the state from publicly releasing records identifying the petition signers. The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the order, opening the way for release of the documents.

In agreeing to take up the case, the Supreme Court reinstated the federal judge’s injunction blocking release of the records pending resolution of the case.