WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday a state’s disclosure of the identities of petition signers does not violate the First Amendment in general — dealing a setback to conservative supporters of a ballot initiative to defend marriage.
The justices voted 8-1 to uphold the state of Washington’s right to release under its Public Records Act the names of referendum petition signers. Only Associate Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court’s opinion.
The high court, however, ruled only on the broad challenge that the disclosure of all referendum petitions is unconstitutional. It acknowledged the initiative backers could challenge in federal court the disclosure of petitions in the specific case from Washington in which they expressed concerns about harassment from homosexual activists.
The case involved Referendum 71, which, if defeated, would have vetoed a new law granting marriage-like benefits to same-sex couples. (A vote for the referendum was an endorsement of the law.) The petition effort garnered enough signatures to place the measure on the ballot for the 2009 election, but voters rejected it. The vote was 53-47 percent to support the law and defeat the referendum supporters’ attempt to veto it.
The leader of the referendum attempt reported receiving threats, and supporters of the initiative had reason to believe a recent pattern regarding state ballot initiatives might be duplicated in Washington: Homosexual activists have posted online the names of individuals who support efforts to defend traditional marriage, reportedly resulting in harassment of some of those citizens, especially in California.
Some homosexual groups had asked for the names of the petition signers under Washington state law, saying they planned to publish them on the Internet. One website, www.knowthyneighbor.org, has posted the names and addresses of signers in other states of petitions that sought to place on the ballot initiatives opposed by homosexual activists.
Referendum supporters did not appear to receive encouragement from the Supreme Court that a more narrowly tailored approach would necessarily succeed before the high court. Even Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the court’s most conservative members, signaled in a concurring opinion that potential harassment would not be a basis for requiring a state to keep the identities of petition signers secret.
James Bopp Jr., who argued for the referendum backers before the Supreme Court, said he looked forward “to returning to Washington and showing the Court that supporters of traditional marriage should have their personal information protected from disclosure. Supporters of traditional marriage have been subject to death threats, vandalism and even the loss of their jobs merely for exercising their right to free speech.”
Said Ken Klukowski, Family Research Council’s special counsel and director of the Center for Religious Liberty, “Liberal groups are rushing to cheer this ruling but in fact the Court’s opinion protects those subject to harassment. The Court went on to say that if plaintiffs show a reasonable probability that disclosing their identities could subject them to harassment, then the First Amendment requires those names to be kept confidential. The Family Research Council looks forward to supporting exactly that argument in the lower court, hopeful that the Supreme Court will protect voters seeking to defend marriage as this case goes forward.”
In the Supreme Court’s opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said public disclosure helps prevent fraud and “promotes transparency and accountability in the electoral process.” The justices “conclude that public disclosure of referendum petitions in general is substantially related to the important interest of preserving the integrity of the electoral process,” Roberts wrote.
In his dissent, Thomas said “compelled disclosure” of referendum petitions “chills citizen participation in the referendum process.”
Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna, who represented the state in oral arguments before the justices, called it “a good day for transparency and accountability in elections — not just in Washington but across our country.”
A federal judge in Washington state ruled in favor of the referendum backers on the broader question only to be overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court blocked the disclosure of the petition signers’ identities until it could consider the case.
The 2009 law targeted by Referendum 71 granted marriage’s benefits, without its title, to the domestic partnerships of homosexual couples. The law did not legalize “gay marriage.”
The high court’s opinion came in Doe No. 1 v. Reed.
In January, the Supreme Court blocked the broadcast of a high-profile California case, citing the possibility of harm to witnesses. The constitutionality of Proposition 8, a 2008 California ballot initiative approved by voters that restored the traditional definition of marriage, was under scrutiny at the time in a federal court in San Francisco.
The justices pointed to evidence that backers of Prop 8 have “been forced to resign their jobs after it became public that they had donated to groups supporting” Prop 8; been put on “Internet blacklists,” where businesses who supported Prop 8 were boycotted, and “received death threats and envelopes containing a powdery white substance.”
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, an assistant editor of Baptist Press.