Who signed Utah petition? That remains private -- for now

Published April 28, 2010 3:55 pm
Politics » Federal judge keeps names under wraps as he ponders release.
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Supporters of a Utah ethics-reform initiative will have to wait at least one more week to find out if their names are made public.

U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups decided Wednesday to keep those names under wraps for another week -- continuing a temporary restraining order already in place -- until he can review a handful of anonymous affidavits from petitioners who fear retaliation if their names are released.

The question is whether petitioners should enjoy a right to privacy despite involving themselves in a political campaign to enact stricter ethics laws on Utah's Capitol Hill.

State law now requires county clerks to release those names.

Attorney Alan Smith, a key legal figure behind the grass-roots group Utahns for Ethical Government, argued Wednesday that public disclosure could have a "chilling effect" on people's right to petition government and make their opinions known.

"What is an abridgment of my freedom of speech right?" he asked during a three-hour hearing. "It is the state telling me I have to speak. 'Whether you like it or not, we are going to force you to speak because we are going to disclose your name.' "

Consequently, he said, fewer people would be willing to participate in a political movement that needed 95,000 signatures -- a tally that represents 10 percent of the voters who participated in the most recent gubernatorial election in 26 out of the state's 29 Senate districts -- to successfully reach the ballot box.

"When people choose to engage in political activity," Assistant Utah Attorney General Thomas Roberts countered, "there are consequences."

Petition organizers have conceded they didn't secure enough signatures to reach this November's ballot. Supporters are now looking to 2012.

Those backers, Roberts argued, shouldn't expect anonymity when they scribble their names on a petition. For one thing, they aren't acting as simple "petitioners" who are asking government to solve a problem. Instead, they are serving as citizen legislators putting a proposed law change to a public vote. As such, their actions should be done in public.

Roberts dismissed the notion that the state is forcing people to speak, describing the claim as "just wrong."

"People are free to sign the petition or not," he said. "People are free to participate in the political process or not."

Roberts added that transparency has another benefit: discouraging fraud. People may be less inclined to sign their name twice or write down someone else's name if they knew their entries would be scrutinized publicly.

Smith called it an abstract argument that holds much less weight than the day-to-day stories of people who are intimidated or retaliated against because of their political decisions.

Jeffrey Hunt, a Salt Lake City attorney specializing in First Amendment law, leans in favor of disclosure. He doubts petitioners could have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they sign their names to a document that will be recorded publicly.

"While I understand the concerns about retaliation," Hunt said, "those are the risks you take, and should be able to handle, when you decide to sign a petition."


Who signed Utah petition? That remains private -- for now


Ethics initiative highlights

» Would establish an independent citizen ethics commission.

» Would establish an ethical code of conduct for state legislators.

» Would develop mandatory ethics training for all lawmakers.

» Would bar spending campaign funds on anything personal.

» Would prevent lawmakers from contributing their own campaign funds to each other's campaigns.

» Would bar lawmakers from serving as paid lobbyists for two years after they exit office.

» Would ban all lobbyist gifts except for light refreshments.

» Would provide written opinions to clarify gray areas for legislators.

» Would ban donations to legislators from corporations, nonprofits, partnerships and unions.

» Would cap individual contributions at $2,500 and political-action committees at $5,000 per two-year election cycle.

Source: Utahns for Ethical Government

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