Supreme Court rules release of names on petition does not violate free speech

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] 8-1 in Doe #1 v. Reed [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that the First Amendment [text] does not bar a state from releasing identifying information about petitioner signers where there is a sufficiently compelling state interest. The case arose over an order to publish the names of those who signed a Washington state petition to overturn a state law [JURIST report] giving same-sex partners the same rights as married partners. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled [opinion, PDF] that the names should be released, but the Supreme Court issued a temporary stay [JURIST report] in October. Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the opinion of the court, affirmed the Ninth Circuit's ruling holding that the state had a compelling interest in limiting speech, stating:

The State's interest in preserving the integrity of the electoral process is undoubtedly important. "States allowing ballot initiatives have considerable leeway to protect the integrity and reliability of the initiative process, as they have with respect to election processes generally" The State's interest is particularly strong with respect to efforts to root out fraud, which not only may produce fraudulent outcomes, but has a systemic effect as well: It "drives honest citizens out of the democratic process and breeds distrust of our government."
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a concurring opinion advocating for the use of a balancing test and was joined by Justice Stephen Breyer, who also wrote a concurring opinion. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring opinion indicating that he would rule in favor of the petitioners in an as-applied challenge to the Washington state law. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined by Stevens and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a concurring opinion arguing that the state law should be upheld on the basis of federalism principles. Justice Antonin Scalia also wrote a concurring opinion arguing that the First Amendment does not prohibit public disclosure of the information. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that release of the information would stifle speech and discourage participation in state's referendum process.

During oral arguments, counsel for the petitioners argued [JURIST report] that, "[n]o person should suffer harassment for participating in our political system, and the First Amendment protects citizens from intimidation resulting from compelled disclosure of their identity and beliefs and their private associations." Counsel for the state of Washington argued that the names can be made public. Thursday's ruling addressed a broad application of the state law, but still allowed the as-applied challenge to the law, which is currently pending before a district court, to proceed.

 

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