High Court denies petitioners privacy, sends decision back to lower court

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WASHINGTON D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 24 that the names of voters who sign election petitions is public information and is not protected under privacy laws.

The ruling governed a Washington state case in which those who signed petitions asking for a referendum to limit gay rights sought to keep their names private for fear of retribution. They argued that releasing their names violated their free speech rights.

The court disagreed saying a broad ban of the information did not justify "only modest burdens" that would come with disclosure of the information. The public information, they wrote, helps to keep the process of government open and can inhibit fraud.

At the same time, though, the justices did seem to acknowledge that there could be instances where controversial topics could warrant secrecy in specific cases but, instead of elaborating, they sent the case back to the appeals court to let them determine if the nature of this petition warranted secrecy.

The court's 8-1 ruling, to uphold Washington's right to release the names of referendum petition signers under its Public Records Act, was a blow to Protect Marriage Washington's effort to protect the signers from becoming public due to fear of intimidation. Only Associate Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court's opinion.

In its opinion the court agreed with Protect Marriage that people who sign a petition are exercising their First Amendment right to free speech and can act to protect their privacy when supporting traditional marriage.

"We see releasing the names as having a very chilling effect on citizens' exercise of free speech and participation in the initiative process," said Gary Randall of the Faith and Freedom Network, "particularly in those cases where threats have been made publicly toward those who signed."

While James Bopp Jr., lead counsel for Protect Marriage Washington, is pleased that the court recognized that individuals should have the opportunity to protect their personal information from the public, he also wished the court would have supported their petition.

"While we wish the court had agreed with us and found that petition signers speaking on any issue should be protected from having personal information disclosed to the public, we are looking forward to returning to Washington and showing the court that supporters of traditional marriage should have their personal information protected from disclosure," Bopp said.

The case involved the 2009 Referendum 71 (R-71), which, if defeated, would have vetoed a new law granting marriage-like benefits to same-sex couples. The law did not legalize "gay marriage."

The leaders 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 the names of individuals who support efforts to defend traditional marriage online, reportedly resulting in harassment of some of those citizens, especially those who made campaign contributions in California.

In that state, the activists went so far as to create maps showing where traditional marriage supporters lived. In addition, residents reported their personal property being vandalized including cars spray painted and rocks thrown through windows. Business owners have also been targeted with protests and boycotts and at least one person reported being assaulted for his stand on traditional marriage.

During and after the R-71 campaign, gay rights groups began to demand that the state release the names of those who signed the petition to get R-71 to a statewide vote. Organizations planned to publish the personal information of traditional marriage supporters on websites.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington issued an order preventing the release of the names of the petition signers in September 2009. In October the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the release of the name since the signatures were garnered in public with no promise of confidentiality.

Later that same month the Supreme Court issued an emergency order preventing the release of the names until the appeal was decided.

In his dissent, Justice Thomas said "compelled disclosure" of referendum petitions "chills citizen participation in the referendum process."

BP news was used in this report.

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