The U.S. Supreme Court handed down an extremely important ruling this past Thursday. In an 8-1 vote, the court ruled that public disclosure of the names and addresses of persons signing petitions is not a violation of the First Amendment.
The case, Doe v. Reed, comes from Washington State. The legislature had granted same-sex couples all the benefits of marriage except the word itself. People who do not believe same-sex couples should have those benefits organized. They got like-minded people to sign a petition to force a referendum on the new law. As required, the petition signers wrote their names and addresses on the petition. The petition drive got the required number of names and a referendum was placed on the ballot.
Some people who supported the law on same-sex benefits planned to publish on the Internet the names on the petition. At least some of the signers of the petition felt that would not be in their best interest and asked a court to forbid it. Their bizarre argument was that having their names made public would hinder their First Amendment right to free speech.
They wanted the rights to peaceably assemble, to petition for redress of grievances, and to get on the ballot a measure that would deny some of their fellow citizens some basic rights. But they didn’t want anyone to know who they were. They feared retribution of various kinds. They wanted to be able to speak out anonymously and yet affect societal change.
It’s why Klan members wear masks.
Eight members of the high court (Clarence Thomas being the lone moron) understood how stupid this was. Someone in the government is tasked with verifying the names and addresses on a petition, but the names have to be public record and the process must be transparent so that everyone can be satisfied the petition was legal. This has been standard operating procedure for more than two centuries.
It has not been my habit to favorably quote Justice Antonin Scalia, but there is a first time for everything. In his concurring opinion he wrote: “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
Next week we will celebrate the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. They did not quietly complain over a few ales in the local tavern and hope someone else would win their freedom. They published a treasonous document calling the king of England a tyrant and announcing a new nation not subject to the king’s authority. Each man signed the Declaration knowing he could be signing his death warrant. Still other men took up arms against their king, a bold, public, sometimes fatal announcement of where they stood on the crucial issue of their day.
Speech requires courage, whether that speech is actually talking, or writing, or performing music or a play, or creating a work of art. Speech is a public matter, and it can be scary. It can get you snubbed at the grocery store. It can earn you some dirty looks over the back fence or from across the table at a family dinner. It can get your house egged. It can get you sued. It can get you killed. But you cannot say, “I want society to change” if you aren’t also brave enough to say, “This is who I am, and I approve this message.”
We who gather in this space — and in other, similar spaces — as writers know that speaking out is a revolutionary act. We have some understanding of the power of words and how that power can be either ennobling or corrupting. We know that there are both rewards and punishments for writing what we do and sharing it with the world. Generally, the worst we face is some minor public humiliation (“You write like a first-grader!” and “Aren’t stories supposed to be good?”). Occasionally, we get radical — as I have done to some small degree here — and expose ourselves to greater consequences.
I think we would agree that it beats the hell out of living mute and scared.