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Ref. 71, temporary restraining order freezes public signature release
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Ref. 71, temporary restraining order freezes public signature release

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Staff Writer On July 29 U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle granted a temporary restraining order requested by Protect Washington Families to stop the Secretary of State's Office from making the names and addresses of those who signed Referendum 71 public.

Judge Settle wrote that the referendum backers "have sufficiently demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits [of their First Amendment claim] and a reasonable likelihood of irreparable harm if the names are released."

Wednesday afternoon's ruling by the federal judge, in a case that raises questions on whether the state's open-government laws threaten free speech, is temporary. Judge Settle set a full hearing on the matter for September 3. The Secretary of State's Office said that while it has no statutory authority to withhold the names, it also did not plan to contest the effort to temporarily block their release.

Although the state did not oppose the restraining order request, it will defend the Public Disclosure Act in court, said Assistant State Attorney General Jim Pharris.

The coalition of religious conservative organizations, Protect Marriage Washington, sued to block release of the names on Constitutional grounds, claiming state disclosure law limits free speech, "particularly when it is reasonably probable that those exercising their First Amendment rights would be subjected to threats and harassment."

Larry Stickney, campaign manager for Protect Marriage Washington, said, "No petition signer should have to endure the threats and harassment I endured while circulating the petition."

The campaign also said it has heard from supporters who didn't want to sign the petition for fear of reprisals, while some supporters claim they had already been subjected to threats and harassment for their involvement in the referendum.

"That points to the need for an exception in the state public disclosure law," Protect Marriage Washington attorney Stephen Pidgeon told the court July 29.

The main organizer of the petition-publicizing effort, Brian Murphy of WhoSigned.Org said Wednesday's temporary restraining order disappointed him.

"All this information belongs to the public," he said. "We should not have to ask for it to be made public or wait for a court decision."

Murphy said worries about harassment are overblown. Although it can't control what people do with petition information once it's posted online, the group's goal is confrontation without hostility.

The petition information is a public record under state law.

Director of knowthyneighbor.org, Tom Lang, who planned to post the names on his website said he was "intensely disappointed Washington failed to defend its own public disclosure law in court."

The signatures in question are printed on more than 9,000 petition sheets Protect Marriage Washington submitted to the secretary of state July 25. The coalition submitted 138,500 signatures and need at least 120,577 to be valid for the referendum to qualify.

If the signatures are deemed valid, Referendum 71 will be on a November statewide ballot set for public vote on whether to approve or reject a new state law, Senate Bill 5688, expanding the rights for registered same-sex couples. It has been reported that Referendum 71 backers have said they don't have faith in the state to fairly validate the 138,500 signatures, but it was unclear how they might address that concern.

An actual hand-count of the signatures to determine their validity began July 29.

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