Supreme Court Upholds Disclosure of Petition Signers


Today, in an 8-to-1 ruling, the Supreme Court said public disclosure of information about people who sign a petition to get an initiative on a state ballot does not, as a general matter, violate the First Amendment. The case was bought by backers of a Washington state initiative aimed at overturning a same-sex domestic partnership law, who feared they would be harassed if their support for the measure were revealed. The Court said the government's interest in maintaining transparency and rooting out fraud is sufficient to justify making the names of petition signers publicly available. Supporters of this particular initiative (and others that are especially apt to trigger harassment) can still make a First Amendment case for an exception to the general rule.

The lone dissenter was Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote:

Just as "[c]onfidence in the integrity of our electoral processes is essential to the functioning of our participatory democracy,"   so too is citizen participation in those processes, which necessarily entails political speech and association under the First Amendment. In my view, compelled disclosure of signed referendum and initiative petitions under the Washington Public Records Act (PRA)…severely burdens those rights and chills citizen participation in the referendum process. Given those burdens, I would hold that Washington's decision to subject all referendum petitions to public disclosure is unconstitutional because there will always be a less restrictive means by which Washington can vindicate its stated interest in preserving the integrity of its referendum process.

The Institute for Justice's amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiffs is here. I discussed the case in a column last April.