By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
OLYMPIA — A coalition of newspapers and broadcasters, including The Herald, is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the state’s public records law by rejecting an Arlington group’s attempt to keep names of Referendum 71 petition signers a secret.
“Washington state believes in legislating in the open. If they prevail, legislating would take place in secret,” said Bruce Johnson, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine of Seattle representing media organizations.
On Thursday, Johnson filed a brief with the high court in the case brought by Protect Marriage Washington against Secretary of State Sam Reed. It is one of nearly two dozen such filings with justices who are set to hear oral arguments April 28.
Larry Stickney, an Arlington man who leads Protect Marriage Washington, called the media argument “flawed,” saying the purpose of the public disclosure law is to let people know what’s going on behind closed doors of their government and not to let them mine data on their political foes.
“What you’re doing here is the public dissemination of private information and opening those individuals up to harassment and intimidation,” he said. “Is that a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech? I’d say yes.”
The case will examine the interplay of Washington’s public records law with the constitutional rights of those participating in political activity.
Stickney’s group turned in 138,000 signatures to qualify the 2009 ballot measure to overturn the law expanding rights of registered domestic partnerships. The measure failed at the ballot box.
When opponents of the referendum sought to obtain the names of signers through a public records request, Protect Marriage Washington won a court order blocking their release.
Its lawyers contend signing a petition is an act of free speech and signers enjoy a constitutional right to keep their name private. Washington’s public records law as constructed violates that right, and in the instance of Referendum 71, led to some signers being harassed once people knew their identity.
Johnson said if justices agree, it will mean going to court to justify every request for a public record containing the name of any individual. That would effectively deprive newsgathering organizations of a critical tool in keeping track of the workings of government, he said.
Allen Funk, publisher of The Herald of Snohomish County, said misuse of the information is a serious concern but it does not override the requirement for disclosure that is crucial to the media’s ability to monitor the running of elections.
“I’m very sympathetic to people’s concern about a loss of privacy. We don’t want this to, in some way, discourage them from signing initiative and referendum petitions,” he said.
“These are records that should be available to us in the media and the public so we can all be certain the initiative was correctly filed and signature count conducted accurately,” he said
Johnson, who specializes in First Amendment issues, is representing an array of newspapers and broadcasters, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Wall Street Journal, Belo Corp. (owners of KING 5), Cox Media Group (owners of KIRO-7) and online journalism organization Pro Publica.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Court filings and other documents related to the Referendum 71 case are posted online by the Secretary of State at www.secstate.wa.gov.
To read the brief filed by the media, read the online version of this story at www.heraldnet.com.