Federal judge rules against release of petition signatures
 

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posted Friday, September 11, 2009 - Volume 37 Issue 37

Federal judge rules against release of petition signatures
by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer

On September 10, U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle issued a 17-page decision ruling that the names and addresses of everyone who signed R-71 petitions will remain sealed from public view.

Protect Marriage Washington (PMW), a coalition of conservative religious far-right organizations, argued that releasing the names would invite harassment, and in some cases, violence towards individuals who signed the petition. Likewise, PMW said they wanted to protect the businesses, churches, and homes of R-71 petition signers.

The defendant in the case, Secretary of State Sam Reed, argued that petitions are lawmaking documents and are subject to transparency like any other mechanism to set policy.

Releasing the names became an issue when Brian Murphy, a Gay blogger, filed a records request in July. Murphy said he wanted to post the information on the WhoSigned.org website, so that the public could confront the petition's signers and have a civil debate about the topic of same-sex domestic partnership. PMW fired back, saying individuals within their campaign had already been subject to harassment and threats.

On July 29, Judge Settle issued a Temporary Restraining Order which prevented the state from releasing the information. Late last week, Settle announced he would rule on the matter on September 10.

Settle said the court had to determine whether it is likely that referendum petitions that were submitted to the Secretary of State should be considered protected political speech.

"The Court is unaware of any authority, including the Washington Constitution, which stands for the proposition that signatures in support of a referral must be obtained in a public forum," Settle wrote in a September 10 ruling. "Therefore, at this time, the Court is not persuaded that the waiving of one's fundamental right to anonymous political speech is a prerequisite for participation in Washington's referendum process."

He said the Court finds that PMW established that it is likely that supporting the referral of a referendum is protected political speech, which includes the component of the right to speak anonymously. Judge Settle said PMW established that petition signers are "likely to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of preliminary relief" - basically, their first amendment right of free speech would be violated, irreparably, if the State complies with the public record request.

"Our office has followed the state law that says referendum petitions are public records, and thus should be made available upon request. We believe in open government and think the judge's decision is a step away from open government," said Secretary of State spokesman Brian Zylstra in an issued statement. "While we are disappointed in the judge's decision, we respect it and will continue to withhold these petitions from public viewing unless there is a different ruling in the future."

Zylstra said when people sign a referendum or initiative petition, they are trying to change state law.

"We believe that changing state law should be open to public view," he said.

In short, R-71 is headed for the November 3 General Election ballot, and the public is unable to know who exactly brought it there.



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