A series of precedents considering First Amendment challenges to disclosure requirements in the electoral context have reviewed such challenges under what has been termed "exacting scrutiny." That standard requires a substantial relation between the disclosure requirement and a sufficiently important governmental interest. To withstand this scrutiny, the strength of the governmental interest must reflect the seriousness of the actual burden on First Amendment rights.
The case arose out of a state law extending certain benefits to same-sex couples, and a corresponding referendum petition to put that law to a popular vote. Intervenors invoked the Washington Public Records Act (PRA) to obtain copies of a petition to place a referendum challenging a new law on the ballot. Sponsor and signers objected, arguing that such public disclosure would violate their rights under the First Amendment.
Does the disclosure of referendum petitions in general violate the First Amendment?
The Court concluded that such disclosure did not violate the First Amendment. The Court held that petition signing remained expressive even when it had legal effect in the electoral process. The State of Washington's interest in preserving the integrity of the electoral process sufficed to defeat the argument that the Washington Public Records Act, Wash. Rev. Code § 42.56.001 et seq., was unconstitutional with respect to referendum petitions in general. Public disclosure of referendum petitions in general was substantially related to the important interest of preserving the integrity of the electoral process. Although the sponsor and signers failed to show harm from disclosure in general, they could press their narrower challenge of disclosure of their particular referendum petition in proceedings pending before the district court.