Saturday, June 26, 2010
When citizens of Washington state sign a petition to put an initiative or referendum on the ballot, they are taking a public stand.
Yet, the idea makes some people uncomfortable. They prefer to think signing a petition as an anonymous activity like a straw poll that demonstrates a ballot measure has support. They figure it really doesn't matter exactly who is offering support.
It does matter who is offering support, which is why those who sign must be registered voters and their addresses must be provided so it can be verified they signed the petition.
Unfortunately, an effort to overturn a gay-rights law got ugly when gay-rights supporters threatened to publish the names of those who signed Referendum 71, which would have overturned the 2009 Domestic Partner Expansion Bill that gives same-sex couples the same rights and benefits as married couples.
A lawsuit was filed to block release of the names by Protect Marriage Washington, a consortium of religious conservative groups and individuals opposed to domestic-partner benefits. The group and its supporters contended those who signed the position could be subjected to threats and harassment.
A federal judge agreed to secrecy on the grounds making public the names of those who sign petitions could have a chilling effect on free speech.
We found the ruling troubling and nonsensical.
Last week the U.S. Supreme Court, in a challenge to Washington's Public Records Act, righted this wrong in ruling 8-1 the names and addresses can be made public.
However, the high court said those who do want to keep their names secret can attempt to do so on a case-by-case basis if they can convince a judge such action is necessary. That's reasonable, although the threshold for success should be very high.
The overriding issue here is that a ballot-measure petition is a public document and the public has a right to know who wants that measure 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.
This information is needed so debate - open, public debate - can take place.
It is wrong to intimidate people into not taking a stand. We found the tactics used by those opposing the R-71 to be repugnant. The threats to post on the Internet the names of those who signed the petition felt like bullying.
This awful behavior should be denounced regardless of how one stands on the issue of gay rights.
It is equally important to stand for open, free speech.
The Supreme Court did just that in its ruling.
Our address is P.O. Box 1358, Walla Walla, WA 99362. If possible, e-mail letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters must be less than 400 words. The writer's name and city will be published. But to be considered for publication, the letters must be signed and include the full address of the writer and a daytime telephone number.