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Are Petition Signatures Private Speech?

By Jason Beahm on April 30, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When you sign a petition, can your name be made public? 

The Supreme Court will answer that question, after having heard the arguments Wednesday in Doe v. Reed. Besides presenting an interesting constitutional question, the case is noteworthy as it is the last case that will be argued before Justice Stevens, who retires at the end of this court term. The case began in Washington state when same-sex marriage opponents petitioned to overturn Washington's domestic-partnership law.  

Gay-rights activists sought the names of the people who signed the petition under the Public Records Act. The request has created a difference of opinion, with some believing that petitioners could be harassed and that such a release could violate First Amendment rights. Opponents argue that there is no First Amendment protection to a signature on a petition, as it is public document. 

As Janet I. Tu of The Seattle Times reports, the Supreme Court has never ruled on whether signing a ballot measure petition is protected political speech. Of course it is possible that even after the Court issues their opinion in Doe v. Reed, that the question will still remain unanswered. 

Attorney James Bopp Jr. brought the case before the Supreme Court on behalf of Protect Marriage Washington. "When public disclosure laws like those in Washington force people to reveal themselves, individuals cannot speak without worrying about threats to themselves, their families, or their jobs," he said.

Attorney General Rob McKenna disputes Bopp's assessment. He believes that without turning over the names of the people who sign petitions, government lacks transparency and accountability. The state's disclosure laws impose a "modest burden" on petition signers, compared with the, "very compelling, very strong government and public interest in transparency, accountability and fraud protection," he said.

Justice Stevens did not pass up his last chance to ask questions as a sitting Supreme Court Justice in the Washington petition case:

Isn't there another possible public interest? Stevens asked Bopp, Would it be legitimate public interest to say, 'I would like to know who signed the petition because I would like to try to persuade them that their views should be modified?

A decision is expected early this summer. 

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