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Originally published Friday, September 11, 2009 at 3:40 PM

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Top Washington officials fight to release Referendum 71 petitions

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna and Secretary of State Sam Reed will fight a federal judge's action to block release of petition information behind the Referendum 71 campaign for a vote on expansion of domestic-partnership rights and responsibilities.

THE Washington state attorney general and secretary of state quickly joined forces Friday to fight efforts to keep basic public records secret.

Referendum 71 fuels the debate, but the overarching legal issue is the compelling public interest in open and transparent government.

"We believe the names of those who sign referenda and initiatives are public record and the state has a history of releasing this information," said Attorney General Rob McKenna. "We intend to vigorously defend our public records law in this matter as well."

A federal judge blocked access to the name and addresses of petition-signers who wanted a measure to expand domestic partnership benefits put on the November ballot. U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle in Tacoma stopped the state from releasing any information on the petition to the public.

Referendum and initiative petitions are public documents, and people who sign them are engaging in the legislative process.

They are invoking the First Amendment right to petition the government. Why does it fall to the state to say that activity is off the record and secret?

Sponsors of R-71 sought to have expansion of domestic-partnership regulation presented to voters. Circulating petitions put on hold the law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire. Under current law, none of the petition information could be withheld.

Those who object to the expansion of rights and responsibilities of family life to registered same-sex couples and heterosexual couples with a partner age 62 or older broadly argue that lawful dissemination of the petition information puts them at risk.

If so, the case is not made or detailed in the judge's 17-page ruling or in public statements by opponents of R-71. The words that get used all presume some awful, intimidating behavior instead of citing examples. So public records are kept secret because unspecified actions are "likely" or "probably" will occur. That is not enough to keep public records secret.

Participation in the political and legislative process takes a thick skin. Ask state and federal lawmakers holding town meetings on health-care reform. Petition signers enter a legislative arena that has turned crude enough for a member of Congress to call the president of the United States a liar.

Menacing, threatening behavior is unlawful and must be punished. In a community debate about extending or denying basic rights and responsibilities to all Washington state families, the discussion needs to be open and on the record.

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