TACOMA, Wash. — Signed petitions seeking a statewide vote on expanded gay partnerships will remain shielded from public view for at least a few more days, while a federal judge decides whether Washington state’s public-records law could pose a risk to free-speech rights.
The case revolves around Referendum 71, which would put the Legislature’s latest expansion of domestic-partnership rights for gay couples on November’s general-election ballot.
The conservative political group Protect Marriage Washington turned in nearly 138,000 petition signatures to state election officials to qualify R-71 for the ballot. Those petitions are public records under state law.
Gay-rights activists have pledged to post the names of the petition-signers online, encouraging supporters of same-sex unions to discuss the issue with anyone they may recognize.
Protect Marriage Washington argues that tactic could lead to harassment, amounting to an unconstitutional infringement of free-speech rights. But state attorneys defending Secretary of State Sam Reed say the harassment threats are far too weak to risk violating the state’s public-disclosure law.
Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle extended a restraining order that bars public release of the signatures while he ponders the case. Settle said he expects to have a decision by Sept. 10.
In courtroom arguments, Protect Marriage Washington attorney Sarah Troupis said release of names “directly leads to the threats, harassment and reprisals that we worry citizens of Washington will be subject to.”
“The courts cannot facilitate, and the state cannot facilitate through the public records act, a means to harass, threaten and otherwise commit violence against the citizens of the state of Washington,” she said.
Assistant Attorney General Jim Pharris replied that Protect Marriage Washington hasn’t shown significant harm beyond rude comments or phone calls — nothing that would “be appropriate to overturning the state’s strong tradition for open government.”
Pharris noted that whether it’s a lawmaker who sponsors a bill, a citizen who speaks up at a town-hall hearing or a voter who signs a referendum petition, the functions of democracy are public.
“When citizens stand up and propose something, that is an inherently public process,” he said.
Settle did rule, however, that gay-partnership supporter Washington Families Standing Together could view the petitions as part of that group’s court case seeking to keep R-71 off the ballot.
That lawsuit, separate from the federal court case, was renewed last Thursday in Thurston County Superior Court.
Washington Families Standing Together claims that Reed, the state’s top elections official, improperly accepted thousands of petition signatures. Reed denies those allegations, and the state is defending his agency’s practices.
The group’s previous attempt to block R-71 was turned away last Wednesday in King County for technical reasons.
Referendum 71 asks voters to either keep or reject the “everything-but-marriage” law that expands already-established domestic partnerships for gay couples. A “yes” vote puts the law into place; a “no” vote rejects it.
The underlying laws that define domestic partnerships — enacted in 2007 and broadened in 2008 — would remain in place.
Protect Marriage Washington was unsuccessful in an effort to keep its political donors’ names secret, with the state Public Disclosure Commission ruling last month that it wasn’t exempt from state campaign-finance laws.
As of last week, more than 5,900 domestic-partnership registrations had been filed in Washington since the first law took effect in July 2007.