Don’t bogart my petitions, man

The U.S. Supreme Court could decide the petition privacy case Doe v. Reed as soon as Thursday. Many organizations on the left were upset that a conservative group seeking to thwart gay marriage rights in Washington state would seek to cloak their members in a shield of anonymity reminiscent of the authors of the Federalist Papers.

Some of the same liberal blogs, though, reacted with horror when an interdepartmental goon squad killed the buzz of pot activists in Washington by bogarting their petitions, howling about invasion of privacy.

Last month, a federally-funded, multi-jurisdictional task force called WestNet raided a medical marijuana dispensary in Tacoma, Wash. looking for evidence of the illegal sale of marijuana. While the raid turned up 70 marijuana plants (15 is the legal limit in Washington per medical marijuana patient), WestNet seized 200 signed petitions supporting Initiative 1068 (I-1068) which would legalize the sale, use, and possession of marijuana by persons 18 and older. The federal agents photocopied the petitions, keeping the names and addresses of Washington residents who favor legalization.

The episode has brought charges by the left that WestNet violated the petition signers’ First Amendment rights by seizing the petitions. Phillip Dawdy, spokesman for I-1068, said he understands police procedures about seizing potential evidence, but he worries that such a confiscation might have a “chilling effect” on future signature-gathering. The progressive news site Fire Dog Lake (FDL) started its own petition to have the seized petitions returned and FDL contributor Michael Whitney wrote that the federal agents engaged in a “clear act of intimidation designed to scare potential supporters of legalization from signing on to petitions.”

Controversies over ballot petitions and First Amendment rights are nothing new to the Evergreen State.   The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in Doe v. Reed, which concerns the release of the names of 138,500-some individuals who signed a petition for a ballot initiative to overturn a domestic-partnership law passed by the state legislature.  Same-sex marriage opponents maintained that publicizing their names would expose them to harassment and intimidation whereas supporters claimed that disclosure was necessary to maintain “transparency.”

Considering the outcry over the perceived need to maintain transparency in Doe v. Reed, it is interesting to note how our progressive friends are invoking the First Amendment to maintain the anonymity of the supporters of marijuana legalization. If there was a compelling interest to release the names of the same-sex marriage opponents, surely that standard ought to apply to supporters of marijuana legalization and there shouldn’t be any concern that the raid on the dispensary might expose the petition signers to intimidation or threats from the state or fellow citizens by revealing their identities.

They may not realize it, but it seems as though those worried about the First Amendment rights of the petition signers have learned a valuable lesson about the not-so benign nature of disclosure and the power it can provide the state to coerce and intimidate. It’s just unfortunate that it often takes a bad trip before many people realize that the First Amendment was written for citizens to keep tabs on the government, not for the government to keep tabs on its citizens.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.