Transparency Trumps Privacy In Petitions, Court Says The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that signing a petition does not count as speech protected from disclosure, although there may be exceptions. The case was brought by signers of a petition who feared harassment. The petition sought to repeal Washington state's recently expanded domestic partnership rights.
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Transparency Trumps Privacy In Petitions, Court Says

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Transparency Trumps Privacy In Petitions, Court Says


Transparency Trumps Privacy In Petitions, Court Says

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The court's other ruling today was a major setback for opponents of gay marriage who wanted their identities kept secret.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has that story.

ARI SHAPIRO: In 2009, Washington's legislature expanded the state's domestic partnership law. People who oppose the bill gathered 120,000 signatures for a ballot measure asking voters to repeal it. The people who signed the petition feared that they would be harassed if their names became public, so they went to court challenging Washington's Public Records Act.

They argued that a signature on a petition is speech that is protected from disclosure. In an eight-to-one ruling today, the Supreme Court disagreed. Washington's Secretary of State Sam Reed was delighted.

Mr. SAM REED (Washington Secretary of State): It is really a victory for the people in terms of open government, transparency in government and the people's right to know.

SHAPIRO: The justices said there can be exceptions to the rule of transparency. They told the lower court to consider whether this case is such as an exception.

Jim Bopp represented those who signed the petition.

Mr. JIM BOPP (Lawyer): We are very confident that we will be able to meet those standards, and that means that supporters of traditional marriage will be protected. And I think it's unfortunate that the court wasn't willing to protect everyone.

SHAPIRO: While the justices were almost unanimous in their decision to favor transparency over privacy, they disagreed widely over who should get a privacy exception.

Richard Briffault is a Columbia law professor.

Professor RICHARD BRIFFAULT (Professor, Columbia Law School): There's still a willingness on the part of several of the justices to accommodate arguments that disclosure will lead to serious harassment, and there's just some disagreement as to how much proof do you need to have and how early in the process can that proof be put forward.

SHAPIRO: In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said very little about the standard of proof. In contrast, Justice Samuel Alito said courts should be generous in granting privacy exceptions. Justice Sonya Sotomayor disagreed. She wrote, I view the burden on public disclosure as minimal on this context.

And Justice Antonin Scalia went farther saying I doubt whether signing a petition fits within the freedom of speech at all. That's the opposite view from Scalia's usual ally, Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas was the only dissenter in this case, and he wrote that Washington's public disclosure law is unconstitutional, arguing that it chills citizen participation in the referendum process.

Loyola law professor Rick Hasen says this is just chapter one on this issue.

Professor RICK HASEN (Loyola Law School): They're all writing because of what they see as what's coming next, which is deciding in a particular case whether or not there's enough proof of harassment to justify an exception.

SHAPIRO: Hasen says it's important that the justices favor disclosure over privacy in this case because a similar issue is bubbling up in a different area: campaign finance regulation. Congress is considering disclosure rules to tell voters who is funding political campaigns.

Prof. HASEN: As the court starts striking down limits on campaign money, as they did in the Citizens United case earlier in the term, the pressure is going to be on disclosure to do a lot of work in preventing corruption and doing other things.

SHAPIRO: This case shows that a majority of the court is ready to let the information flow.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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