The US Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 yesterday that signatories to statewide referendum petitions should be public information. The case, Doe v. Reed (see PDF), arose out of controversy surrounding Referendum 71 in Washington state and dealt with issues of free-speech and privacy. The decision upholds Washington's public-records law.
The decision, which was authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, said, "disclosing signatures help[s] protect the integrity of petitioning by ensuring that only valid signatures are counted toward getting an issue on the ballot," according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Justice Clarence Thomas was the sole dissenting vote and wrote in his dissent that he found the public-records law unconstitutional "because there will always be a less restrictive means by which Washington can vindicate its stated interest in preserving the integrity of its referendum process," according to the Washington Post.
The case has its roots in a 2009 law established by Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, called the "Everything But Marriage Act," according to CNN. This law granted same-sex couples in Washington state all the same rights as heterosexual couples, except the right to marry. In response to the law, an anti-gay marriage group called Protect Marriage Washington collected signatures to force a referendum vote on the issue. Voters ultimately approved Referendum 71, which maintained the state's law and was the first time gay rights were upheld by voters in any state in the US.
In Doe v. Reed, gay rights opponents sought to overturn Washington's public-records law to prevent names signed on the referendum petition from being released. They argued that making the signatures public information could open those individuals to harassment or retaliation, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. James Bopp, an attorney for gay rights opponents, said that opponents of same-sex marriage "have been subject to death threats, vandalism, and even the loss of their jobs" in states where names on petitions have been released, according to the Seattle Times.
In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that in specific cases, petition-signers could ask courts to withhold their names from the public if they could prove a "reasonable probability" that disclosure would subject them to harassment, according to the Washington Post. However, several concurring opinions suggested that such claims are unlikely to succeed. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "There are laws against threats and intimidation; and harsh criticism, short of unlawful action, is a price our people have traditionally been willing to pay for self-governance." He continued, "requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed," reported the Washington Post.
Media Resources: Doe v. Reed; Washington Post 6/25/10; Feminist Daily Newswire 2/19/10; CNN 6/24/10; Seattle Times 6/25/10; Salt Lake Tribune 6/25/10