WASHINGTON — Since the Houston City Council passed an ordinance banning discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, opponents have been gathering signatures to reverse the measure.
Now, a new, anonymous campaign is publishing the names and addresses of those opponents, posting the petitions online that were submitted to the city earlier this month asking City Council to repeal the ban, which was passed in May and is called the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO).
If the opponents, No Unequal Rights, have gathered enough signatures, the City Council has the option of either repealing the ordinance — which it is not expected to do — or placing it on the ballot for a referendum vote. The Houston city attorney is still reviewing the signatures to see if the petition met the required number of signatures, with a final ruling expected in the coming week.
The online posting of the petition has set off a new debate, beyond the one over the ordinance itself, about just who is behind the online effort and with what motives. Although the website, HEROpetition.com, states that the aim of making the petition easily available to all is "to allow for independent verification of its validity," one of the first people to note the site's existence after a Gay Star News report was South Texas College of Law professor Josh Blackman, who wrote that a person had told him that he hadn't signed the petition because he "feared what would happen to him if his name and contact information were released."
One of the people who has strongly supported the HERO measure, Houston GLBT Political Caucus treasurer Noel Freeman, told BuzzFeed that he was the person who made a public records request for the petitions — and that he did so on the day they were submitted.
"If somebody feels that they're being publicly shamed by these petitions being online, I think that says more about them than it does about the people who are putting the petitions online," Freeman said on Wednesday. "If you're embarrassed that your political views are on public display, then maybe you should rethink your political views."
Although Freeman said he isn't behind the website, he said that he knows who is behind the site and noted that he "shared them [the petitions] with a number of people. They got into the public domain pretty quickly."
Blackman noted a 1990 Texas Attorney General's opinion stating that petitions are public records subject to disclosure. Moreover, when such disclosure was challenged by those wishing to keep referendum petition signatures private in Washington state, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 2009 case, Doe v. Reed, that "disclosure of referendum petitions" ... "does not as a general matter violate the First Amendment."
In a twist, the people behind the website, HEROpetition.com, are themselves remaining anonymous. A person responding to an inquiry made to the email address provided on the website, HEROpetition.com, told BuzzFeed Tuesday night that they "aren't identifying people associated with the website to protect our personal safety."
The domain name was registered on July 3 through Domains By Proxy, a service whose purpose is to mask the identity of a person purchasing a web domain. The person or people making the petitions available to all defended their anonymity.
"The personal safety risks to the people who run this site are far greater than the risk to any one individual among tens of thousand who signed the petition," the person responding to inquires made at the website's email address wrote to BuzzFeed. "[S]ome people claim they will be the victims of harassment because of this site, but some of them have no problem coming after the folks on this side. People who have spoken out publicly in favor of HERO are already facing threats against their jobs."
Freeman also defended the petition posters' anonymity.
"We know who runs the website, and the people who run the website have requested to remain confidential. And we totally respect that," he said. "I'm very much a public face of 'the movement,' and my own personal experience has given some people in the community pause. I've had people come after my job, I've had people do open records requests on my email because I'm a public employee. I've got video cameras on my house for a reason."
Chris Geidner is the legal editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. In 2014, Geidner won the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association award for journalist of the year.
Contact Chris Geidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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