Democracy is not a parlor game. When competition among ideas brings core values into conflict, emotions will boil over sooner or later.
That’s regrettable, but it’s no justification for abandoning the open-government principles that make democratic systems possible in the first place.
In Washington state, the heated debate over Referendum 71 is testing our devotion to those principles.
R-71 is an attempt to overturn a measure that the Legislature passed this year granting same-sex couples who enter into domestic partnerships the same rights that married couples have.
If sufficient signatures on petitions are validated, the bill will go before the voters in November. If not, the measure will become law. Up to that point, all is routine.
However, this issue moved beyond the norm when some advocates of the original legislation vowed to publicize the names of people signing the petitions, which are public documents. It came across as a ham-handed threat of harassment, and many defenders of gay rights denounced it. Objectionable or not, it was legal.
Now, some backers of the referendum drive are trying to circumvent laws meant to guarantee an open political process.
Citing the ranting threats posted on a Bellingham man’s Web site, they asked the state Public Disclosure Commission to seal the names of donors to their campaign. On a different front, they went to federal court for a temporary restraining order against disclosing the roughly 130,000 signatures on the referendum petitions.
This week the PDC refused to seal the names, but that pertained to a request for emergency action. The matter will still come up at the PDC’s Aug. 27 meeting. In the federal court matter, meanwhile, a full hearing on the petitions is scheduled for Sept. 3 in Tacoma.
For the record, we supported the Legislature’s action on the domestic partnership bill. But harassment and intimidation are not acceptable tools of political discourse, and threats of violence should never be taken lightly.
But our political system depends on personal accountability, and we have law enforcement agencies for maintaining public order.
More than 80 years ago, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote that the fear of injury “cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.” The same must be true in the case of citizens’ access to the records and process of their government.
The assurance of open public records is essential to the legitimacy of a system of self-government.
These pleas for secrecy deserve a peremptory dismissal.