Thursday, June 24, 2010

Court upholds disclosure of petition signers

Posted By on Thu, Jun 24, 2010 at 12:53 PM

Big news here. The U.S. Supreme Court, in an 8-1 vote, has upheld a Washington decision that allowed public release of names of people who sign initiative petitions. The case was brought by anti-gay groups, who have reacted unhappily to disclosure of the names of people who signed ballot petitions for initiatives to ban same-sex marriage.

The overriding need for public dislcosure of petition signers — in this and any other petition campaign — is to guard against fraudulent signatures. A gay rights group had put on-line the names of those who signed petitions in Arkansas to prevent adoptions by gay people.

This will be welcome news to the University of Arkansas's Janine Parry, who joined a group of scholars arguing for openness.

This decision doesn't answer for all time the question of whether disclosure of names in certain cases could chill free speech. It only answered the general question of whether disclosure of petition signers generally was acceptable. Justice Clarence Thomas would have protected those who sign anti-gay petitions. Samuel Alito sounded sympathetic to them. Antonin Scalia, on the other hand, said it wasn't even a close call. Credit where due:

"I doubt whether signing a petition that has the effect of suspending a law fits within 'the freedom of speech' at all. Our Nation’s longstanding traditions of legislating and voting in public refute the claim that the First Amendment accords a right to anonymity in the performance of an act with governmental effect," Scalia wrote. He also suggested that the petition signers demanding anonymity need, in essence, to grow up.

"Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forwardto a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously...and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave," Scalia wrote.

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