TACOMA, Wa. (CN) – Washington must release the names of people who signed a petition fighting expansion of the state’s domestic partnership law, a federal judge ruled, rejecting the claims of a conservative religious organization that signees would be subjected to harassment if their names were made public.
U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle ruled Monday that Protect Marriage Washington has “not shown serious and widespread threats, harassment, or reprisals against the signers of R-71, or even that such activity would be reasonably likely to occur upon the publication of their names and contact information.”
Referendum 71 attempted to overturn a 2009 Washington law that granted domestic partners all the rights of married couples. Offered the choice between accepting or rejecting the new law, voters approved it, 53-47 percent.
In the weeks after the referendum, several groups requested copies of the R-71 petition, which Protect Marriage used to place the referendum on the ballot. The initiative’s conservative supporters sued Washington in 2009 to keep the names of 137,000 people who signed its petition secret, saying the release under the Washington’s Public Records Act violated the their civil rights and there was a “reasonable probability” that signees would be harassed.
After a federal judge initially blocked the release, the 9th Circuit overturned in October 2009. But a temporary block authorized by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy kept the names under wraps for another eight months as the justices considered oral arguments. In June 2010, the court ruled 8-1 to release the signatures, leaving open the possibility that threats posed to petition signers could warrant an exception to the Public Records Act.
On remand in Washington, Settle said the exemption from public disclosure Protect Marriage sought had only been upheld in a few cases that protected the membership names of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Socialist Worker Party (SWP).
Protect Marriage “has not provided competent evidence that it is in any material way similar to the organizations, groups, or parties who have received the as-applied exemption in the past,” according to the 34-page decision. “Instead, the evidence before the Court logically leads only to the opposite conclusion.”
Settle said witnesses for Protect Marriage “only supplied evidence that hurts rather than helps its case.”
The individual plaintiffs meanwhile “are each already known to the public as being supporters of R-71 and none have testified by declaration that they would be seriously concerned if their personal identifying information” is disclosed.
Secretary of State Sam Reed, who was named as a defendant in the case, applauded the decision. “While I appreciate a group’s right to petition the court to have its signature petitions exempted from public view, I think it’s important to create a high bar before allowing such names to be kept secret,” Reed said in a statement. “Judge Settle’s ruling rightly indeed sets that bar very high.”
The public can buy a DVD of the petition with the signature names from the State Archives for $15.