On January 15, 2010, the United States Supreme Court accepted an appeal from the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in John Doe #1 v. Ree. The appeal will weigh the First Amendment rights of privacy in political speech, association and belief against the right to obtain referendum petitions containing the signers’ names and addresses under a state public records act.
Protect Marriage Washington (PMW), a group opposed to a bill signed by the Governor of Washington expanding the rights and responsibilities of state-registered domestic partners, circulated a referendum petition seeking to place the law on the statewide ballot. The petitions required a signer’s printed name, signature, home address, and also provided a place for the signer -- at his or her option -- to list an e-mail address. The Secretary of State received requests under the state’s Public Records Act for copies of the petitions. Two of the groups making the requests publicly stated the intent to publish the petition signers’ names on the Internet.
The District Court granted a Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction sought by PMW, blocking disclosure of the referendum petitions under the Public Records Act as violating PMW and the petition signers’ First Amendment rights to free speech and association. Among the evidence PMW submitted was a declaration of its campaign manager, whose name was publicly associated with the referendum, telling of e-mail threats to him. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the state’s interests in “(1) preserving the integrity of the election by promoting government transparency and accountability; and (2) providing Washington voters with information about who supports placing a referendum on the ballot” were “sufficiently important to justify the [Public Records Act’s] incidental limitations on referendum petition signers’ First Amendment freedoms.”
The issue is now before the United States Supreme Court for briefing, oral argument and a decision. Ohio’s law concerning information required to be placed on a referendum petition is similar to petition requirements in the State of Washington, thus the outcome of this case could significantly impact Ohio’s petition process.