Monday, September 14, 2009
A judge's ruling blocking the release of the names of those who signed Referendum 71 is an affront to open government.
The right of free speech allows everyone to state our views without government censorship or oppression.
But it is misguided to believe that the First Amendment, which states "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," somehow prohibits government from mandating the names be made public of those who sign petitions aimed at putting issues on the ballot.
Having a public record of who is behind the creation of laws, the changing of laws or the repealing of laws is critical in a democracy. It allows the people to know who is behind the effort to legislate.
Yet, a federal judge last week granted a preliminary injunction blocking the state from making public the names of those who signed Referendum 71, the measure that seeks to overturn the 2009 Domestic Partner Expansion Bill that gives same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as married couples.
The effort to block release of the names is led by Protect Marriage Washington, a consortium of religious conservative groups and individuals opposed to domestic-partner benefits. It maintained that those who signed the position could be subjected to threats and harassment.
Frankly, anybody who takes a stand on an issue always runs that risk. There are laws in place to protect those who are threatened or harassed.
Nevertheless, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle refused to allow the state to make public the names and addresses of those who signed Referendum 71, saying they likely are protected under the First Amendment. The state, he said, failed to prove a compelling public interest in their release.
Settle couldn't be more wrong.
The Secretary of State's Office, which oversees elections, is obligated under the state Public Records Act to release the petitions to those who request them.
The law, which essentially calls for the people's business to be done in the open, has worked well for years. It has not had a chilling effect on free speech. Many petitions -- all with names made public -- have been on the ballot with a few even gaining approval of voters to become law.
Brian Zylstra, spokesman for Secretary of State Sam Reed, said the judge's decision moves away from open government. We agree.
"When people sign a referendum or initiative petition, they are trying to change state law," Zylstra said. "We believe that changing state law should be open to public view."
Attorney General Rob McKenna has wisely said he will ask the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to review the decision on a fast track. Until then, he will ask an appeals court to lift an injunction that blocks the release of the names.
This ruling cannot be allowed to stand. If it does, the Public Records Act will be weakened as others will try to change law while remaining anonymous.
Those who want to change the law must be identified so they can be accountable.