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Author Topic: Petition Signers Now Subject to Public Disclosure  (Read 919 times)

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Offline ParadoxTopic starter

Petition Signers Now Subject to Public Disclosure
« on: June 24, 2010, 01:02:02 PM »
When I heard all of that talk about "transparency" last year, I had no idea that this would be part of it. Although Justice Roberts seem to think otherwise, I think that the possibility of public disclosure will definitely deter a significant number of people from signing controversial petitions.

WASHINGTON — People who sign petitions calling for public votes on controversial subjects don't have an automatic right to hide their names, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday as it sided against Washington state voters worried about harassment because of their desire to repeal that state's gay rights law.

The high court ruled against Protect Marriage Washington, which organized a petition drive for a public vote to repeal the state's "everything-but-marriage" gay rights law.

Petition signers wanted to hide their names because of worries of intimidation. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused to keep their names secret. The Supreme Court stepped in and temporarily blocked release of the names until the high court could make a decision.

The court now says disclosing names on a petition for a public referendum does not chill the signer's freedom of speech enough to warrant overturning the state's disclosure law.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing the 8-1 judgment for the court, said it is vitally important that states be able to ensure that signatures on referendum petitions are authentic.

"Public disclosure thus helps ensure that the only signatures counted are those that should be, and that the only referenda placed on the ballot are those that garner enough valid signatures," Roberts said. "Public disclosure also promotes transparency and accountability in the electoral process to an extent other measures cannot."

But Roberts also said that the court's opinion deals with whether disclosure of the names on referendum petitions as a whole violates the First Amendment, not solely the Protect Marriage Washington case.

The intimidation that anti-gay rights supporters fear is not present in other referendum issues like tax policy, revenue, budget or other state law issues, Roberts said. "Voters care about such issues, some quite deeply — but there is no reason to assume that any burdens imposed by disclosure of typical referendum petitions would be remotely like the burdens plaintiffs fear in this case," he said.

But the chief justice added that Protect Marriage Washington could go back to the lower courts and try again on their specific concern in hopes of getting an exemption.

"Upholding the law against a broad based challenge does not foreclose a litigant's success in a narrower one," the chief justice said.

The case now goes back to the lower courts for further arguments.

"This is a good day for transparency and accountability in elections — not just in Washington but across our country," said Rob McKenna, Washington state's attorney general. "We're pleased the Supreme Court ruled in favor of disclosure, upholding the public's right to double-check the work of signature gatherers and government — and giving them the ability to learn which voters are directing the state to hold an election on a new law. Citizen legislating is too important to be conducted in secret."

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court's opinion.

"In my view, compelled disclosure of signed referendum and initiative petitions under the Washington Public Records severely burdens those rights and chills citizen participation in the referendum process," Thomas said. "Given those burdens, I would hold that Washington's decision to subject all referendum petitions to public disclosure is unconstitutional because they will always be a less restrictive means by which Washington can vindicate its stated interest in preserving the integrity of its referendum process."

Opponents of the law that expanded the rights of gay couples mounted a petition drive that succeeded in getting a referendum on the "everything-but-marriage" law on last year's ballot. But voters backed the law by a 53 percent to 46 percent tally that granted registered domestic partners the same legal rights as married couples.

While the campaign was under way, gay rights supporters sought access to the petitions under Washington's open records law. Protect Marriage Washington, the group that organized opposition to the law, objected, saying its members would be harassed if their names were made public.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused to keep the names secret, but the Supreme Court stepped in and blocked release of the names before the vote.

The justices later intervened in another case in which gay rights opponents complained about potential harassment. The court's conservative majority prevented broadcast of the trial on California's ban on same-sex marriage.

The case is Doe v. Reed, 09-559.

Offline SuperHans

Re: Petition Signers Now Subject to Public Disclosure
« Reply #1 on: June 24, 2010, 03:06:28 PM »
The scariest thing about this is that whenever a dictatorship instals itself somewhere (not that I'm saying we'll slip into one of those anytime soon) it's not just present action that are used to determine enemies of the new state. It's always past actions, such as voting records or anything that could indicate political activity.

As is now, though, it's primarily intended to discourage people from rocking the boat. That's undemocratic already, but when you consider what this information could be used for it's even more so.

Offline Trieste

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Re: Petition Signers Now Subject to Public Disclosure
« Reply #2 on: June 25, 2010, 09:52:55 AM »
I don't know, signing a petition has always been a risky prospect, in my opinion. You sign your name to things, and it's a risk. You're putting your name down and saying "I SUPPORT THIS" with the understanding that it will be sent to people who can make a difference, the movers and shakers. It's being sent to them because they have the power to enact change, but they also have the power to make your life utterly miserable. A petition is not and was never meant to be anonymous, and the people who would like it to be are misunderstanding the purpose: a petition is a set of names of people who support an idea. In the spirit of John Hancock, you can make your name quite noticeable and agitate endlessly for the change you believe in, or you could make your name quite small and just sort of be there.

If you want to be anonymous, there are ways. Send anonymous letters, make phone calls from a pay phone, send a fax from Kinko's or fire off an email from a disposable account. This doesn't stifle the democratic process; just makes it a little less desirable to mindlessly sign petitions when asked to do so, at least if you have a reputation to worry about.

Offline Pumpkin Seeds

Re: Petition Signers Now Subject to Public Disclosure
« Reply #3 on: June 25, 2010, 10:00:54 AM »
I do agree that petition signing should not be an anonymous affair.  This is meant to be an outcry of the public for some sort of change.  A person signs their name and their reputation to a piece of paper in support of their beliefs.  That is the purpose of the petition.  Also, the opposition should have the right to have these name verified to ensure that indeed this is the will of actual citizens and not random names jotted down on a piece of paper.  If people are going to consider legislation that we, the people, want to have brought up then we might as well ensure that actual people are wanting this change.

Voting was meant to be anonymous to preserve the act of voting.  Petitions are  to tell the people voted into office what the people want.

Offline Brandon

Re: Petition Signers Now Subject to Public Disclosure
« Reply #4 on: June 25, 2010, 10:14:47 AM »
It seems odd to me that anyone would expect anonymity when signing a petition. Petitions are there for groups of people to make their will known and I think its fine for anyone to be able to see how many of those names are real names. Saying you support something and then wanting to be anonymous seems counter productive to what a petition is.

Now I can see the other side, in this case people afraid of harassment and/or reprisals from the anti-gay groups out there. However if they're afraid of those things then that's what the police are there for. If someones harassing you you get a restraining order. If someone attacks you for your belief then you file assault charges.

Offline DarklingAlice

Re: Petition Signers Now Subject to Public Disclosure
« Reply #5 on: June 25, 2010, 10:35:25 AM »
I couldn't have said it any better than Trieste and Pumpkin Seeds.

Signing a petition is a public declaration, and your opponents have the right to know who you are, if only to verify that you exist. To my mind, if your ideals aren't strong enough to overcome potential downsides, maybe they are not important enough to sign a petition on in the first place.

Now, it is possible that some people will attempt to use this disclosure to harm their opponents, which they certainly do not have a right to do. However, as Brandon points out, any such attempt is going to be illegal and action can be taken in response to that in civil or criminal court depending on the nature of the case.

And this does not prevent anonymous letter writing campaigns, contributions, etc. There are plenty of ways to support a cause anonymously. But a petition should be a list of names, individuals, instead of just a raw number. It gives the process a sense of legitimacy, accountability, and weight.

Offline Vekseid

Re: Petition Signers Now Subject to Public Disclosure
« Reply #6 on: June 25, 2010, 01:54:10 PM »

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court's opinion.


Has anyone gathered the statistics on the proportion of 1-8 decisions this ... fellow ... is responsible for?

Offline Hemingway

Re: Petition Signers Now Subject to Public Disclosure
« Reply #7 on: June 25, 2010, 05:10:01 PM »
I don't see how this is a bad thing at all. You might force some people to stand up for their beliefs, and face some criticism. It seems to me that if you're ashamed of or for some other reason don't want people to know your views, you might want to reconsider them, or at least reconsider voicing them at all.

Offline Oniya

Re: Petition Signers Now Subject to Public Disclosure
« Reply #8 on: June 25, 2010, 08:14:09 PM »
Don't know about 8-1/1-8 decisions, but here's a list of his writings for the court (contains concurrences, dissensions, opinions, and 'concur in part, dissent in part')

Offline ParadoxTopic starter

Re: Petition Signers Now Subject to Public Disclosure
« Reply #9 on: June 25, 2010, 08:16:01 PM »
I should clarify that I don't think it's a bad thing either. I was simply positing that some people may be dissuaded from signing things because of this. All things considered, I agree with the point about people being upfront about signing petitions in the first place.