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Originally published September 4, 2009 at 12:07 AM | Page modified September 5, 2009 at 12:25 AM

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Names on R-71 petitions stay hidden as judge studies case

Signed petitions seeking a statewide vote on expanded gay partnerships will remain shielded from public view for at least a few more days, while a federal judge decides whether Washington's public-records law could pose a risk to free-speech rights.

TACOMA — Signed petitions seeking a statewide vote on expanded gay partnerships will remain shielded from public view for at least a few more days, while a federal judge decides whether Washington's public-records law could pose a risk to free-speech rights.

The case revolves around Referendum 71, which would put the Legislature's latest expansion of domestic-partnership rights for gay couples on November's general- election ballot.

The conservative political group Protect Marriage Washington submitted nearly 138,000 petition signatures to state election officials to qualify R-71 for the ballot. Those petitions are public records under state law.

Gay-rights activists have pledged to post the names of the petition signers online, encouraging supporters of same-sex unions to discuss the issue with anyone whose name they may recognize.

Protect Marriage Washington argues that tactic could lead to harassment, amounting to an unconstitutional infringement of free-speech rights. But state attorneys defending Secretary of State Sam Reed say the harassment threats are far too weak to risk violating the public-disclosure law.

Thursday, U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle in Tacoma extended a restraining order that bars public release of the signatures while he ponders the case. Settle said he expects to have a decision by next Thursday.

In courtroom arguments, Protect Marriage Washington attorney Sarah Troupis said release of names "directly leads to the threats, harassment and reprisals that we worry citizens of Washington will be subject to."

"The courts cannot facilitate, and the state cannot facilitate through the public-records act, a means to harass, threaten and otherwise commit violence against the citizens of the state of Washington," she said.

Assistant Attorney General Jim Pharris replied that Protect Marriage Washington hasn't shown significant harm beyond rude comments or phone calls — nothing that would "be appropriate to overturning the state's strong tradition for open government."

Pharris noted that whether it's a lawmaker who sponsors a bill, a citizen who speaks up at a town-hall hearing, or a voter who puts his or her signature on a referendum petition, the functions of democracy are public.

"When citizens stand up and propose something, that is an inherently public process," he said.

Settle did rule, however, that gay-partnership supporters Washington Families Standing Together could view the petitions as part of that group's court case seeking to keep R-71 off the ballot.

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Washington Families Standing Together and Anne Levinson, its chairwoman, filed that lawsuit, which is separate from the federal-court case, Thursday in Thurston County against both Secretary of State Sam Reed and Protect Marriage Washington.

Washington Families contend the secretary of state accepted tens of thousands of signatures it should not have, according to state law.

The group also contends Protect Marriage used deceptive practices to get people who actually support the expanded benefits to sign R-71 petitions, and that the petitions themselves included false information.

Washington Families had brought up similar concerns in a case it filed last week in King County Superior Court. Wednesday, a King County judge acknowledged those concerns but said state law doesn't require the secretary of state to reject the questionable signatures, and that any challenges to the referendum would have to be filed in Thurston County.

David Ammons, spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, said the lawsuit was expected. The plaintiffs "lost in King County with essentially the same arguments, the same concerns. Our attorneys would expect to prevail again and we expect the voters will be voting on R-71 this fall."

Gary Randall, with Protect Marriage Washington, said that, as far as he knew, deceptive practices were not used to gather signatures.

As of this week, more than 5,900 domestic-partnership registrations had been filed in Washington since the first law took effect in July 2007.

Information from The Associated Press and from Seattle Times reporter Janet I. Tu was used in this report.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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