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Supreme Court skeptical of signature privacy arguments

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April 29, 2010

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OLYMPIA, Washington: The United States Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in Doe v. Reed and according to reports, some justices voiced their skepticism of signature privacy arguments.[1]

Protect Marriage Washington and representing Attorney James Bopp argue that the release of petition names and campaign donor names can lead to harassment. Bopp points to the aftermath of California's Proposition 8 as an example of harassment. "They said they wanted to post them on the Internet in order to encourage people to have 'uncomfortable' — and that's a quote — 'uncomfortable conversations' with them. So the whole purpose had nothing to do with the validity of the signature, and it had everything to do with harassing and intimidating these people," said Bopp during the 2010 Supreme Court case.[2]

However, during the Wednesday hearing, Justice Antonin Scalia said, "The fact is that running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone calls when you exercise your political rights." In regards to Bopp's argument of the fear of harassment, Justice Antonin Scalia said that some forms of boycotts and picketing are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment.[3]

The state of Washington, however, argues that the referendum process is a public process and thus petition and campaign donor names should remain public. Specifically, Attorney General Rob McKenna argues that because petition-gatherers circulated petitions in public locations, where circulators and petition signers were visible by anyone walking by, such names should be released.[4]

Justice John Paul Stevens, in what is most likely his last scheduled argument prior to his retirement, asked "Is there [not a] public interest in encouraging debate on the underlying issue," by releasing the names?[5]

However, not all justices were skeptical, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. appeared sympathetic to the need for privacy. Alito questioned exactly how much information should be collected and disclosed.[3]

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