English: The Supreme Court of the United State...
English: The Supreme Court of the United States. Washington, D.C. Français : La Cour suprême des États-Unis. Washington D.C., États-Unis. ‪Norsk (bokmål)‬: Høyesterett i USA. Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the side-channel situations with R-71 is a campaign about releasing the signatures of those who signed the original petition to get it on the ballot. Petitions are normally public record, but there’s been a campaign to block the names — and it’s going to the Supreme Court. Prior to that, the last decision at the federal level was to release the names — but given the Court’s interest in the case, the release has been, again, blocked.

The furor started when the gay rights group, WhoSigned.Org announced they’d post the signatures online for people to see — again, the signatures are typically public record, so nothing illegal would have taken place. Dan Savage points out that had they not declared their intentions until after the petitions were verified, the chances were better they’d get the documents requested.

The other side of the debate, the right-wing group Protect Marriage Washington, says that to release the signatures for this purpose would open supporters up for harassment and threats, and the U.S. District Judge, the first to hear the case, agreed, saying it could abridge First Amendment rights of the petition signers.

I’m for the release of the signatures — it IS a matter of public record; the main worry is — as it often is with cases of sensitive information in the public record — in removing the anonymity that difficult access provides. Most people aren’t going to go down to the courthouse to see the petition records; that’s different, of course, if it’s all online. The same argument was raised in the early days of online sex-offender registries. And I think there is validity to that point; I’m not denying that. But it’s common knowledge (or at least it should be!) that petitions are a matter of public record, and if you sign something, you should know that someone can always look it up and find out.

However — if I were to be against the signature release, it’d be for that reason. It turns out a lot of petition signers were lied to about what they’re signing. Sometimes it was a sin of omission — that the petition provided an opportunity to vote in favor of giving marriage rights to gays (which IS true… but they conveniently left out the part that if R-71 didn’t make it to the ballot, gays would already have them) — and sometimes commission; the article linked tells of signature gatherers asking potential signers “We want to know if you’re in favor of giving homosexual couples marriage licenses”. This isn’t illegal — it falls under First Amendment rights — but it’s sure as hell unethical.

That said, though, too — I don’t think the desire for the release of names is as much about harassment as Protect Marriage Washington thinks it is — but rather transparency. In a case like this — where people’s rights are being put up for a vote — I think people have a right to know who’s working on removing those rights. It’s not a perfect situation, and putting the signatures on a website isn’t the perfect solution, but if one of the things that engenders bigotry more than anything else is anonymity, this helps to remove a bit.

Hopefully, though, R-71 will pass, and this will end up being more-or-less moot. After all, the bigots would have already lost, so I think even if the names are released, they’ll still have their anonymity — just the anonymity of apathy.

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