Privacy Protection for People Against Gay Rights?

The Supreme Court announced this afternoon that it's going to decide whether opponents of gay rights and domestic partnership laws have a constitutional right to keep their names and addresses private because they fear they would be subject to harassment if their indentities are put on the Internet.

Opponents who signed a petition against a wide-ranging domestic partnership law in Washington state had asked the Court to take up the case and block the state from releasing the names and addresses of 138,500 people who signed the petitions.

They argue if their names are publicly disclosed, they could face harassment and intimidation--which will ultimately discourage people from saying what they really believe on controversial issues.

That's a fascinating and significant First Amendment issue that injects the Supreme Court—where some of the justices write their opinions by hand—into the debate over technology and privacy. The case essentially asks the Court to confront whether too much information, so readily and publicly available online, can actually cause people to be less willing to participate in the political process and, as a result, ultimately suppress free speech.

Opponents of the domestic partnership laws argue that advances in technology in the Information Age—when information is readily accessible on the Internet to any and all—can end up stifling speech by opening people up to harassment and making them afraid to speak their minds.

In agreeing to decide the case, the Supreme Court—for the second time this week—has signaled it's taking those arguments by anti-gay rights groups seriously.

On Wednesday, the Court agreed to block the broadcast—including on YouTube—of a trial challenging California's gay marriage ban. Supporters of the gay marriage ban had opposed the broadcast, arguing they would be subject to harassment and intimidation if their trial testimony were broadcast nationwide, and the Court expressed some sympathy to those arguments in its opinion.

In today's case, the Court agreed to consider similar arguments by people who signed a petition against a wide-ranging domestic partnership bill in Washington state. They argued that they shouldn't be forced to publicly disclose their names and other information about themselves when they signed petitions opposing a domestic partnership bill.

Gay rights groups have requested the names and addresses of the people who signed the petitions so they can put them on the Internet and to make the names searchable. The opponents said the groups also are "encouraging individuals to have 'personal' and 'uncomfortable' conversations with petition signers."

In court papers, the opponents contended that advances in technology, which make it easy to post names and contact information on the Internet, also make it easy "to encourage harassment and intimidation" against those opposing gay rights.

An employer, for example, no longer has to visit a government office building to learn who among her employees supported a particular referendum. And the "same can be said about curious customers, suppliers or neighbors," the opponents argued.

That adds up to a severe burden on free speech, expression and belief---and for no good reason, they argued.

Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed argues the petitions are public, political speech—not anonymous speech—and should therefore be released to the gay rights groups who requested them under the Public Records Act.

"The governmental interests in transparency and accountability, and providing information to the public, are unrelated to the suppression of free expression," the state argues. "In fact, these interests enhance free expression by allowing people to obtain information about their government so that they can make informed decisions."

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    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.