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Originally published Wednesday, July 29, 2009 at 5:32 PM

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Judge halts release of Wash. referendum signatures

A federal judge on Wednesday halted the release of a list of signatories to a proposed referendum that would overturn Washington state's domestic partnership law, in a case that raises questions on whether the state's open-government laws threaten free speech.

Associated Press Writer

TACOMA, Wash. —

A federal judge on Wednesday halted the release of a list of signatories to a proposed referendum that would overturn Washington state's domestic partnership law, in a case that raises questions on whether the state's open-government laws threaten free speech.

The temporary restraining order issued by U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle followed a request from Protect Marriage Washington, the political campaign challenging Washington's latest expansion of domestic partnership rights.

Gay rights supporters had planned to publish online the names of everyone who signed the petitions, saying they want to discuss the issue with petition signers. The petition information is a public record under state law.

That prompted Wednesday's court action, with the Referendum 71 campaign arguing that public release of the petition signers' identities would put them at risk of harassment, amounting to an unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights.

One of the campaign's organizers, Larry Stickney, said he's already been subjected to threats and harassment for his involvement in the referendum. The campaign also said it has heard from supporters who didn't want to sign the referendum petition for fear of reprisals.

That points to the need for an exception in state public disclosure law, attorney Stephen Pidgeon told the court.

"We have a one-size-fits-all shoe that is going to result in the inappropriate disclosure of petition signers, who will then be exposed to boycotts, threats, harassment and so forth," Pidgeon said.

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

State legislators approved the newest expansion of Washington's existing domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian couples earlier this year. Known as the "everything but marriage" law, it puts domestic partners on par with married couples in all areas of state law that deal with marriage rights.

Religious conservatives want to force a public vote on the new rights, and have submitted about 138,000 petition signatures in an effort to get their referendum on the November ballot.

State elections officials are still verifying whether the campaign has enough valid petition signatures to force a public vote on the new law.

Settle's temporary restraining order prevents Secretary of State Sam Reed, the state's top election official, from releasing the petitions while the court challenge is under way. A further hearing on the case is scheduled for Sept. 3.

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The main organizer of the petition-publicizing effort, Brian Murphy of WhoSigned.Org, 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.

"We can't let discrimination be perpetuated and sit back and say, 'That's OK,'" said Murphy, of Seattle.

The official campaign opposing the referendum doesn't support the effort to publicize petition signers' identities.

---

On the Net:

Protect Marriage Washington: http://www.protectmarriagewa.com/

WhoSigned.Org: http://www.whosigned.org

Domestic partnership information: http://www.secstate.wa.gov/corps/domesticpartnerships

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