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Vol. 75/No. 41      November 14, 2011

Disclosure ruling in Wash.
undermines political rights
(front page)
On October 17 Washington state officials made public the names of 138,000 people who signed petitions to place a referendum on the 2009 ballot, opening them to harassment and victimization for their views and associations and striking a blow to the political rights of working people.

The release came hours after a ruling in favor of the state by U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle, throwing out a lawsuit seeking to keep the names from being disclosed.

The petitions were signed by opponents of a Washington law that legalized domestic partnership for same sex couples. Some organizations that support domestic partnership, including and, announced they intended to put the signers’ names and addresses on a public website.

The suit was filed by James Bopp Jr., a prominent conservative lawyer, on behalf of Project Marriage Washington, a group that circulated the petitions in opposition to the rights of same-sex couples. has posted the names of hundreds of thousands of signers of similar petitions in Massachusetts, Florida and Arkansas. “Finding the names of friends, neighbors, family, coworkers, etc. helped trigger many into a state of activism,” says the group’s statement. “Uncomfortable but desperately needed conversations continue to take place every day as a result.”

The lawsuit documented dozens of examples of death threats, threats of violence, acts of vandalism, loss of employment and job opportunities, and assaults directed against individuals and their families, as well as organizations and churches, who express their opposition to the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Judge Settle disregarded the constitutional rights of privacy, free speech and political association of the 138,000 people who signed the petition in favor of his support for disclosure. “If just a few instances of harassment were used as the standard for preventing the release of names, then disclosure would become the exception, rather than the rule,” he argued.

After the ruling, Bopp announced he was planning to appeal. But the decision by state officials to immediately release the names makes an appeal more difficult.

In 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that disclosure laws like the one in Washington were legal. However, it sent the law back to federal Judge Settle, saying he should rule on whether the petition signers would face harassment.

Arguing that signing a petition “necessarily entails political speech and association under the First Amendment,” Clarence Thomas was the only Supreme Court justice who voted against the ruling. The decision “severely burdens those rights and chills citizen participation in the referendum process,” he said.

During the lawsuit the Washington legislature adopted a bill making the state’s disclosure laws even more onerous, forcing political groups to publicly divulge contributors’ names who give even smaller amounts and strengthening criminal and civil penalties for failure to comply. The bill was signed into law in April by Gov. Chris Gregoire.  
SWP fight against disclosure
Among the disclosure cases cited in the lawsuit was that of the Socialist Workers Party, which since 1979 has successfully fought to maintain the privacy of its contributors, winning exemption from disclosure on the federal, state and local levels, including in Washington state. A central argument in the ongoing fight to maintain this exemption is the finding of another 15-year legal battle, won by the SWP in 1986, that exposed a decades-long campaign of harassment, spying and disruption by the FBI and other political police agencies.

The SWP’s victory against government encroachments on constitutional protections came on the heels of mass proletarian struggles for Black rights, as well as the popular movements against the Vietnam War, for women’s rights and other progressive struggles of the 1960s and ’70s.

Every few years the SWP has refiled and won these exemptions based on extensive evidence of harassment of the party by cops, rightists and other enemies of working people. In the midst of the government’s mounting assaults on workers’ rights, the Federal Election Commission appears to be laying the groundwork to push back the party’s right to maintain the privacy of its contributors.

In 2009 the SWP filed for extension of its exemption, submitting documentation of 77 incidents of attack, harassment, or threats that were more extensive than it did for the last two exemption requests in 2003 and 1996. These included the 2004 firebombing of its headquarters in Hazleton, Pa., along with nine other physical attacks on party campaign officers or campaigners, and the firing of three SWP candidates and one campaign supporter for their political views.

Despite this overwhelming evidence of increased harassment, the Federal Election Commission extended the exemption for only four years, instead of the six years it had approved over the last two decades, on the basis that the incidents “appear to be of lesser magnitude” than those of prior exemption requests. One of six commission members voted against any extension. Ellen Weintraub, who voted for the shorter extension, said, “I hope someday, perhaps next time, this will not be necessary.”
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Workers’ stake in defending rights
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