PUBLIC INFORMATION — "In a case triggered in part by the battle over same-sex marriage in
California, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that disclosing the names
of people who signed initiative petitions generally did not violate
their right to free speech," reports Kathleen Hennessey in the Los Angeles Times. The decision will have little effect in California, where the names of those who petition to put measures on the ballot for an initiative or referendum or to recall public officials are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act.
The 8-1 decision is a partial victory
for gay rights advocates who have used the "outing" of same-sex marriage
foes as a political tactic. Same-sex marriage opponents in Washington
state had argued that the signatures should remain secret like ballots
under the protection of the 1st Amendment. They also claimed that,
given the controversial topic, they faced a particular threat of
harassment and intimidation that required anonymity.
Writing for the majority, Chief
Justice John G. Roberts Jr. came down on the side of disclosure, ruling
that in most cases the benefit of public petitions outweighed the "only
modest burdens" that come with the disclosure. The justices left it to a
lower court to decide whether privacy is warranted in this particularly
controversial petition; however, a majority of justices seemed
unsympathetic to the argument. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented.
decision in Doe et al
vs. Reed was somewhat of a surprise, given that many had believed
that by taking up the case the high court had indicated it was partial
to the 1st Amendment argument.
The case arrived at the court after
a gay rights group said it planned to publicize the names of those who
signed a Washington state petition seeking to repeal a same-sex domestic
partner law. The names were public record under state law, and the
group, KnowThyNeighbor.org, said the move was an attempt to generate
useful discussion between political adversaries.
After the U.S.
9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the state to release the petition,
the Supreme Court agreed to hear the claim, blocking the release of
about 138,000 names just before election day.
The advocacy group
Protect Marriage Washington appealed to the court, saying signers of the
petition had reason to fear retaliation for their political views. They
pointed to reports of harassment, scorn and verbal abuse lodged at
those who signed initiative petitions for California's Proposition 8 ban
on gay marriage.
But in his decision, Roberts wrote that
plaintiffs did not present enough evidence that such concerns applied to
the vast majority of petitions used to change state laws. Disclosing
the names of signers can prevent fraud and promote open government,
Roberts wrote."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 wrote. "Public disclosure also promotes transparency and
accountability in the electoral process to an extent other measures
KnowThyNeighbor Executive Director Tom Lang said the
decision affirmed the group's attempts to make the petition process "as
open and transparent as possible."Roberts suggested that there
might be some cases in which the possibility of harassment and
retribution could justify secrecy, but he did not explain in detail.
Marriage Washington attorney James Bopp said his group planned to
continue to seek that protection in district court."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 in a statement.
five justices conservative Antonin Scalia and the four liberals on
the court suggested they would not look favorably on Bopp's case if it
were to come before the court again.