Disclosing the names and addresses of those who petitioned against the expansion of rights for state-registered domestic partners in Washington does not violate the First Amendment, ruled the United States Supreme Court on Thursday.
“The problem for plaintiffs is that their argument rests almost entirely on the specific harm they say would attend disclosure of the information on the R–71 petition, or on similarly controversial ones,” the court concluded its 8-1 majority opinion.
“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,” the justices added.
In its request to the Supreme Court, plaintiff Protect Marriage Washington alleged, among other things, that several groups had planned to post online the petition it submitted to challenge Senate Bill 5688, which expanded the rights and responsibilities of state-registered domestic partners - including same-sex domestic partners - in Washington.
The bill, which Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law in May 2009, prompted Protect Marriage Washington to gather the signatures of more than 137,000 petition supporters, whose names and addresses were consequently recorded.
Though copies of the petition can be requested under the Washington Public Records Acts (PRA), Protect Marriage Washington alleged that several groups planned to encourage other citizens to seek out R–71 petition signers after their names and addresses were posted in searchable form on the Internet, which plaintiffs argue would subject them to threats, harassment, and reprisals.
“Plaintiffs’ main objection is that ‘the strength of the governmental interest’ does not ‘reflect the seriousness of the actual burden on First Amendment rights,’” the Supreme Court noted. “According to plaintiffs, the objective of those seeking disclosure is not to prevent fraud, but to publicly identify signatories and broadcast their political views on the subject of the petition.”
Despite the claims, the court denied Protect Marriage Washington’s request to keep petition signers’ personal information private in all situations.
It did, however, agree with conservative group 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.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court allowed Protect Marriage Washington to ask the District Court in Washington for an exemption from publicly reporting the personal information of those who support traditional marriage.
“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has recognized that individuals who support marriage should have the opportunity to protect their personal information from public disclosure,” commented James Bopp, Jr., lead counsel for Protect Marriage Washington.
“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,” he added.
The case, Doe v. Reed, will now return to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, where further proceedings will occur.
It is Protect Marriage Washington’s hope that the District Court will prevent the release of the personal information on those who support traditional marriage.
“Supporters of traditional marriage have been subject to death threats, vandalism, and even the loss of their jobs merely for exercising their right to free speech,” Bopp remarked. "We are confident that the District Court will agree that these tactics have no place in the discussion of marriage."