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Law requiring disclosure of initiative workers violates First Amendment

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    NMU         WASHINGTON         Newsgathering         Jun 5, 2000    

Law requiring disclosure of initiative workers violates First Amendment

  • Workers have been discouraged from collecting signatures for ballot initiatives by a state disclosure law, a federal appellate panel ruled.

A Washington state law requiring the disclosure of the names, addresses and salaries of people hired to collect signatures for ballot initiatives violates the First Amendment, the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco (9th Cir.) ruled on May 25.

The court found the statute would “chill political speech protected by the First Amendment” without substantially advancing any state interest to reduce fraud or increase confidence in the election process.

The law was challenged by Washington Initiatives Now! (WIN), an organization serving as a consultant to political committees working to pass ballot initiatives. WIN hires and pays people to collect the signatures needed to get an initiative on the ballot.

WIN filed the lawsuit in 1997, claiming that the statute violated the rights to engage in free speech and receive equal protection under the law.

According to the court, “WIN offered unrebutted evidence that the disclosure requirement . . . has discouraged would-be petition circulators from engaging in that activity.” The court mentioned that several circulators had been threatened or harassed while collecting signatures. Additionally, one professional circulator had stopped collecting signatures because of the disclosure requirement.

The state of Washington produced evidence that petition circulators often freely and safely disclose their names and addresses. The state also argued that the statute decreased election fraud.

The Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s decision to dismiss the case in the state’s favor. Instead, the Court of Appeals found that the Washington statute chilled speech by “inclining individuals towards silence” and discouraging participation in ballot initiatives. The statute was not found to further any substantial state interest that would justify this “chilling effect” on speech.

(Washington Initiatives Now v. Ripple)


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