The latest political struggle in California is over whether the names of contributors to the campaign to bar gay marriage should be publicly disclosed.
Current California law, approved by the voters in 1974, mandates that all political contributions of $100 or more must be reported to the state government along with the contributor's address, occupation and other information. But attorneys for the anti-gay marriage side have filed suit in federal district court to have the information not already revealed to be shielded from public view.
Right at the start, there is something odd about this. You would think that stalwart self-righteous defenders of exclusively opposite-sex marriage-that Core Institution of Western Civilization, etc., etc.,-would be proud to be publicly identified as among its supporters.
Apparently not. The lawsuit claims that supporters have been plagued with a variety of harassment behavior. Among the items listed are harassing phone calls and e-mails, death threats, physical violence, destruction of private property, boycotts, mailed envelopes containing a "suspicious" white powder, and otherwise unspecified "domestic terrorism." In addition, "No on 8" supporters have created convenient Google maps with arrows pointing to where "Protect Marriage" contributors live and work.
But from what anyone can learn from published reports, these incidents are extremely rare-which is surprising given the passions the issue engendered. Destruction of property? A few churches were spray-painted with "No on 8" graffiti and one person had a window broken. Physical violence? Apparently, a few counter-protesters at "No on 8" demonstrations were hit. But, frankly, that's a risk you take as a counter-protester. Harassing telephone calls? Get Caller ID and report the threats to the police.
A "suspicious" white powder sent to a church and a Knights of Columbus office? As if you can just walk down to the corner drugstore and buy a box of anthrax? And we might ask, How well documented are these incidents? At most, they sound like a law enforcement matter, not a free speech matter. Were they reported to the police? There is no information to that effect.
James Bopp, Jr., an attorney representing "Protect Marriage," said, "The highest value in the First Amendment is free speech and some amorphous idea about transparency cannot be used to subvert those rights." No doubt the Constitution guarantees speech to be free of government interference. But free speech applies to our side too. Nothing in the Constitution mentions that it is without social, economic or political consequences.
All of one woman was "threatened" by a man who said if he had a gun he would shoot Prop 8 supporters. That doesn't sound very threatening: He didn't have a gun. Boycotts? The business where one supporter worked was subject to a gay boycott. But boycotts are entirely legal and a legitimate means of protest. Why should I support a business whose owner's or employees' paychecks are used to oppose my legal rights? One man said a flier was distributed calling him a bigot. But he had published advertisements calling gays a menace. That's free speech too, but when he was the target of free speech was he unhappy.
And there are lot of means of political participation that don't get you reported. Go door to door passing out fliers or do it at distant shopping malls. Help staff a phone bank. If you want to make a monetary contribution, give cash to a friend to include in his check to Yes on 8. What happened to political participation? Are these people really clueless as well as timid?
In many ways these people seem like political naifs, knowing little about the ways of the world. They seem unaware that "free speech" and political participation can have negative consequences. As a gay man involved in writing and speaking on behalf of gay equality over the last 35 years, I have received threatening telephone calls ("We're going to cut off your balls." Gratifyingly, that caller was arrested.) Another caller told me I was a sinner, a bad person, etc. I thanked the caller for sharing his view with me.
I have received letters calling me a snake and telling me to crawl back under the rock I came out from under. I have had a window broken by men yelling "faggot." I have had beer cans thrown at me from a passing car. This is just part of politics. As an old Chicago writer once sagely observed, "Politics ain't beanbag."
A hundred dollars doesn't buy as much these days as it did in 1974. If someone wants to raise the nondisclosure level to $200 I would not object. But I would oppose further nondisclosure. People need to take responsibility for their public behavior-and political contributions are definitely public behavior.