Should Signers of Anti-Gay Rights Petition Be Exposed?

(CBS/iStockphoto)
Voters in Washington state will decide today on a referendum that could effectively roll back legislation passed in May to extend domestic partnership rights and responsibilities to gay and lesbian couples similar to those granted married heterosexual couples.

In addition to the fierce battle over the referendum itself, there has been another bitter fight: One over whether the names of the more than 120,000 people who signed a petition to get the referendum on the ballot should be made public.

On one side of the debate is Larry Stickney, the campaign manager of Protect Marriage Washington and one of the main people who got the referendum, known as Referendum 71, on the ballot. Stickney opposes releasing the names, arguing that doing so opens signatories up to intimidation and harassment.

In an interview, Stickney said he has been hit with "numerous death threats," threatening phone calls in the middle of the night, and "obscene, vile emails" for being the public face of his cause.

"We've feared for our children's lives," he said.

Stickney characterized the people who signed the petition are "a bunch of little old ladies and nice people who go to church," and said that "obviously we want to protect them from this kind of thing."

He added that efforts to release the names amounted to a modern-day version of voter intimidation.

"This is no different than the Klan standing outside of voter booths in Alabama when blacks would dare to go vote," he said.

On the other side is Tom Lang, director of KnowThyNeighbor.org, a Web site that has published the names of signatories on similar measures in states around the country. Lang rejected the claims of intimidation – "it doesn't happen," he said – and says he is interested in starting a conversation between neighbors, coworkers and family members.

"This is about meaningful dialogue between those that are going to have their rights stripped from them and the people that are doing it," he said.

Lang said he isn't afraid to publicly back his position, noting that he puts his name and photo prominently on his Web site. Asked if he considers it cowardly to sign Referendum 71 but keep the decision to do so private, he said yes.

The two sides have been engaged in a legal battle that could continue even after the outcome of the referendum is known. After pro-gay rights activists and media outlets filed a request for the names to be released, opponents won a court ruling to keep them secret; the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit then overruled that decision and declared that the names should be released.

But last month the Supreme Court placed a hold on the release of the names that will remain in effect until the Court decides whether to take up the issue.

The Washington affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief supporting the release of the names on the basis of state law, under which the names of signatories on other state petitions have been released in the past. But it has declined to take a position on the larger question of whether, in cases like this, the names should be released to the public.

Jennifer Shaw, the deputy director the Washington ACLU, said in an interview that there are two competing considerations at play.

"The right to privacy that individuals hold, that's one thing that we fight for," Shaw said, arguing that anonymous speech should be protected. On the other hand, she said, "there's a government accountability function as well."

"The only reason this thing is getting on the ballot is a certain number of validly registered Washington voters put their names on the petitions," she said. Shaw argued that if the names aren't released, it's impossible to perform oversight on the state's verification of the legitimacy of the names. (When it comes to the referendum itself, the ACLU has worked on behalf of gay rights and has donated to the cause.)

The Washington secretary of state, as well as gay rights activists, have argued that signing a petition to get a measure on a ballot amounts to playing a part in making law, as the New York Times reports, and should thus be subject to public scrutiny. But while getting access to the names was once an arduous process – interested parties in Washington state could secure a DVD that offered scanned images of the petitions – there are now searchable databases posted in places like KnowThyNeighbor.org and a similar Washington-based group called whosigned.org.

After Proposition 8 passed last year in California, repealing gay marriage rights, gay rights activists organized boycotts of donors to the cause, prompting complaints of harassment.

"This is permanent," said KnowThyNeighbor.org's Lang. "As long as I'm alive, I want people to be able to see who signed these petitions. It serves as a testament that I wish, during the other civil rights issues in this nation, we were able to have."

Stickney of Protect Marriage Washington complained that the move to release the names was tied to "liberal tyranny" and "bullying tactics" by his ideological opponents and said "ideological background checks to me aren't out of the picture at all."

"You have to swear allegiance to the gay lobby if you want to do business in Seattle at this point," he said.

What do you think? Should the names of those who signed the petition to get Referendum 71 on the ballot, and those who sign similar petitions, be made public? Let us know below.

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