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Prop. 8's proponents shouldn't be able to hide

A judge ruled correctly that there's no place for secret donations in California politics.

January 31, 2009

The Political Reform Act of 1974, passed overwhelmingly by California voters during the Watergate era, was meant in part to end secret donations to political campaigns. Californians had reason to worry about such things after oil companies secretly donated $85,000 (which was a lot of campaign money back in the day) to defeat a 1970 public-transit measure.

The intent of the reform act -- to give the voting public full knowledge about who is behind the ever more confusing array of ballot initiatives -- is too important to weaken with special exemptions, even considering the rightful anger of Proposition 8 proponents who say they have been harassed and threatened by opponents since their donations to the same-sex marriage ban were made public. U.S. District Judge Morrison England summed up the matter neatly in his ruling against the proponents, saying: "If there ever needs to be sunshine on a particular issue, it's a ballot measure."

The Proposition 8 committee had sought to forestall the scheduled disclosure of donors who gave from $100 to $999 to the campaign in the last weeks before the vote. It now intends to appeal its case in search of a ruling that might, for example, keep donors' addresses confidential in this and future campaigns. This attempted incursion into open government should be stopped at every legal pass.

The committee complains that pro-Proposition 8 businesses were subjected to boycotts and picketing, and that individuals and organizations were threatened by mail and telephone and saw their buildings vandalized.

There are two types of revenge here, and they have to be separated. Boycotts and pickets are venerable aspects of a lively if sometimes messy democratic process; we may not always like them, but they deserve protection. Threats and vandalism are another matter, repugnant and illegal. Advocates of same-sex marriage should be aware that such actions hurt their cause and gain them no new allies. Sadly, some of them are too angry to care about what the public at large thinks of their tactics.

But law enforcement should care. Ordinarily, a threatening phone call is considered a minor offense, but when it is intended to silence speech, it should be seen not as simple harassment but as political intimidation. Those who have been subjected to illegal acts of revenge should contact authorities, who should in turn investigate and, when possible, prosecute. The best way to stop the harassment is not to curb legitimate forms of protest speech or roll back important disclosure requirements, but to show would-be perpetrators that there are consequences to thinking their anger excuses all behaviors.

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