George Will

SEATTLE -- Conservatives here, a droll minority, say that under this city's quota system, when a conservative enters the city, one already here is required to leave. They also say Washington is actually two states: There is what you can see from atop this city's Space Needle -- meaning, this liberal city -- and there is everything else, extending to the Oregon, Idaho and Canadian borders.

On Tuesday, Washington residents will vote in a referendum that has national significance because of a controversy about disclosing the names and addresses of those who signed petitions to trigger the referendum. Disclosure threatens the right to privacy, which is under assault by a spreading movement -- call it thuggish liberalism -- that uses intimidation to suppress political participation.

The referendum is on a new state law that some say establishes same-sex marriage. This is a matter about which people differ. What is, however, unambiguously wrong is the attempt by some supporters of the law to force disclosure of the names and addresses of the 138,000 people who signed the petition bringing about the referendum. This can have no other purpose than to make it possible to harass those signers.

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Those favoring disclosure say it is mandatory under the state's Public Records Act. If so, that act is unconstitutional.

In the 1950s, Alabama tried to compel the NAACP to disclose its membership list. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that disclosure would burden the freedoms of expression and association that the First Amendment protects.

Advocates of compelled disclosure predictably invoke Louis Brandeis' axiom that sunlight is the best disinfectant. But what is the supposed infection?

The Supreme Court has held that disclosure requirements serve three government interests: They provide information about the flow of political money, they deter corruption and avoid the appearance thereof by revealing large contributions, and they facilitate enforcement of contribution limits. These pertain only to financial information in candidate elections. These cannot justify compelled disclosures regarding referendums because referendums raise no issues of officials' future performance in office -- being corruptly responsive to financial contributors. The only relevant information about referendums is in the text of the propositions.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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