WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether the state of Washington may make public the identities of citizens who signed a petition attempting to protect marriage.
The case, Doe v. Reed, touches on a recent pattern regarding state ballot initiatives: Homosexual activists have posted online the names of individuals who support efforts to defend traditional marriage, resulting sometimes in harassment of those citizens.
A wider constitutional issue in the case is whether signing a petition to place an initiative on the ballot is political speech protected by the First Amendment and therefore the identities of signers are guarded from public disclosure.
The high court granted review in Doe v. Reed Jan. 15 and could still hear oral arguments in the case this term. The final days for oral arguments are in April.
The case involves Washington’s Referendum 71, a ballot initiative seeking to overturn a 2009 state law that granted marriage’s benefits, without its title, to the domestic partnerships of same-sex couples. The law did not legalize “homosexual marriage.” The state’s voters voted 53-47 percent to endorse the law and reject the referendum supporters’ attempt to veto it.
In September, before the November vote, a federal judge blocked the state’s release of the names of the petition signers, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided in October to permit the release of the names. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, blocked the disclosure of the signers until it could consider the case.
Some homosexual groups had asked for the names of the petition signers under Washington’s Public Records Act, saying they planned to publish them on the Internet, The Seattle Times reported. One website, www.knowthyneighbor.org, has posted the names and addresses of signers in four states of petitions that sought to prevent the expansion of civil rights based on homosexuality and marriage-like rights to same-sex couples.
In asking for the Supreme Court to rule in the case, defenders of traditional marriage said the justices should block public disclosure of petition signers’ names, in part, because of “a reasonable probability of threats, harassment and reprisal, which would also have chilled future participation” in political activities.
Advocates for traditional marriage welcomed the high court’s decision.
“The Supreme Court took a large step forward today in protecting the rights of citizens who support a traditional definition of marriage to speak freely,” said James Bopp, a lawyer for Protect Marriage Washington, in a written statement. “No citizen should ever have their personal property destroyed or receive death threats for exercising their right to engage in the political process. The First Amendment protects citizens from government compelled disclosure of their identity when they are engaged in political speech.”
Defending his state’s right to release the names, Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed said, according to The Times, “We welcome an opportunity to go to the highest court in the land to defend Washington citizens’ strong desire for transparency, openness and accountability in government, and the public’s belief that our state and local public documents must be available for public inspection.”
The Supreme Court’s order in Doe v. Reed came two days after it 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, is under scrutiny in a federal court in San Francisco.
“Some of applicants’ witnesses have already said that they will not testify if the trial is broadcast, and they have substantiated their concerns by citing incidents of past harassment,” the high court’s majority wrote. “… While applicants have demonstrated the threat of harm they face if the trial is broadcast, respondents have not alleged any harm if the trial is not broadcast.”
The justices pointed to evidence that backers of Prop 8 have:
— “received confrontational phone calls and e-mail messages from opponents of Proposition 8.
— “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.
— “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.