Protecting the Privacy Rights of Petition Signers


  Isn't signing petitions by members of the public at large more comparable to voting by members of the public at large, than to actions taken by much smaller numbers of public officials acting in their official capacities?

  My concern with forcing members of the public to go on the record when they sign political petitions is a practical one. I believe that measures put on the ballot by citizen initiative are more likely to be pro-freedom than those put on the ballot by legislators, and in practice it is already difficult and expensive for ordinary people to get measures on the ballot due to the fact that many people don't want to sign petitions. Without any other adjustments, a requirement that the identities of petition-signers be a matter of public record would only make it that much harder to get people to sign.

  On the other hand, as I believe I discussed in a thread on this list* a few weeks ago, I don't believe people should be allowed to make anonymous complaints to the authorities in law enforcement cases (e.g. calling the police about noise at a party), because such a system is too readily subject to abuse by the authorities. I'm not sure these positions are contradictory, but I'm open to hearing an argument that they are.

  Excellent haiku, by the way! :slight_smile:

Love & Liberty,
        ((( starchild )))

*I'm posting this response to LPSF-discuss rather than LPSF-activists, since it seems more appropriate to the former list, and am copying Rob and Chris on the message since I don't believe they read the LPSF-discuss list.

In response to Rob's point below, I agree that the *authors* of a ballot initiative should be required to be publicly identified. Perhaps also the financial backers, although that one is a lot trickier, since it could technically include anyone from a union or corporation putting up millions of dollars, to somebody who slips a buck in the jar of a petition circulator. But my tentative position is that it would be a bad idea to make members of the public identify themselves publicly just for signing petitions.

  This kind of touches on another topic that troubled me when I found out about it a year or two ago. Up until then, it was possible to go to the SF Board of Supervisors office and browse through all the correspondence sent to Board members by members of the public, businesses, lobbying groups, etc., as public records. Now, if I recall correctly, these documents are being treated as private records -- or at least the system was changed so that you have to request to have one specific record at a time pulled, rather than just being able to leaf through them, or so that private information like names and addresses are redacted. I don't recall exactly which. But I'm pretty sure the change was justified in terms of protecting the privacy of individuals who communicate with the Board.

  Now I confess I thought this was a terrible change, primarily in terms of its effect on the ability of members of the media to keep tabs on government and inform the public, but also for someone like me to come in and see who in the community is taking pro-freedom or anti-freedom positions that we should be aware of. And I'm pretty sure that's the real reason they made the change -- people in power don't necessarily want those things happening.

  However I disliked the change mostly because *all* the communications were uniformly restricted, rather than the authors being given the choice of whether to keep their letters and emails accessible to the public or not. In my case, if I write a letter to the Board, I generally *want* the media and the public to have as much access to that record as possible! Unless there's an attempt to actually sic the law on somebody however (as in the case of complaint calls to the police), I kind of feel like members of the public should be able to write to a government official and choose to keep at least their contact info private, if not their names. Without that option, it's effectively like having a requirement that you can't email a member of the Board unless you're willing to share your email address with whoever happens to walk into their office and look at the record.

  Of course that's still pretty much the case when you're dealing with the Elections Department as a candidate or ballot argument proponent/opponent -- all your info is right there for any member of the public to come in and browse or copy. In that case the lack of anonymity seems justified to me, since candidates and ballot argument authors have a much higher level of political involvement than petition signers. But I can definitely see both sides of this whole issue.

Love & Liberty,
        ((( starchild )))