Unmoved by claims that donors supporting California's same-sex marriage ban were harassed, a federal judge on Thursday denied a bid to conceal their identities.
The preliminary ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Morrison England Jr. in Sacramento came almost three years after voters approved Proposition 8.
In a case that is widely expected to be appealed, ProtectMarriage.com claimed it qualified for the same exception to campaign disclosure laws once granted by the U.S. Supreme Court to the Socialist Workers Party and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But in oral arguments Thursday, England said the Socialist Workers Party involved relatively few people and that belonging to the NAACP in the early 1950s "could cause you to be killed." Proponents of Proposition 8, he said, not only enjoyed the support of millions of people, but prevailed.
England read from declarations in which people claimed yard signs were stolen, that they received harassing phone calls or, in one case, that people protested outside a supporter's business, calling that "the extent of what happened."
England in January 2009 denied a request by ProtectMarriage.com for a preliminary injunction to keep secret the identities of donors who made contributions in the final days of the campaign, and those donors' names have been disclosed.
"It's always been understood in this country that citizens will argue over politics, trying to change the minds of their neighbors and friends," Lawrence Woodlock, a lawyer for the state Fair Political Practices Commission, argued Thursday. "The First Amendment, in a nutshell, is not offended by a hard-fought campaign with people who sometimes, sadly, call each other names and use sharp-elbow tactics. That's the nature of American democracy."
Joe La Rue, a lawyer for the proponents of Proposition 8, said donors would remain exposed to harassment "so long as these names are perpetually kept on the state's website."
He said, "The fact that this is typical for controversial campaigns doesn't mean it comports with the First Amendment. Once upon a time, segregation, Jim Crow, these things were typical, and that didn't make them right."
The state argued that identifying donors publicly is necessary to an informed electorate. Mollie Lee, a San Francisco deputy city attorney, said ProtectMarriage.com offered no evidence of death threats or violence. If an exception was granted to the proponents of Proposition 8, she said, "it would have to also be granted to innumerable other campaigns."
California law requires disclosure of the identity of donors contributing $100 or more to a campaign. ProtectMarriage.com argued unsuccessfully that the $100 limit is too low.
England's ruling followed a similar decision by a federal judge in Washington state in a similar case.