People who sign petitions must accept disclosure of their political views. This conclusion rests on the seemingly uncontroversial (if circular) premise that petition signing is a public activity. Courts have thus far shown little sympathy for individuals who take a public stand on an issue by signing a petition and then assert privacy claims after the fact. Democracy, after all, takes courage, as Justice Scalia wrote in the petitioning disclosure case Doe v. Reed. But signing a petition today brings consequences beyond public criticism. The real threat of disclosure for modern petition signers is not tangible harassment, but the loss of “political obscurity” in a modern data architecture that exposes citizens to indelible Internet scrutiny and rampant political preference cataloguing. This Article argues that political obscurity is an important, unarticulated interest in the current discourse about privacy and petitioning. Courts and state administrators must take steps to protect it or risk drastically diminished participation in petition signing. Finally, this Article suggests that political obscurity has important implications in other areas of political participation. For example, those who contribute small amounts to political campaigns and petition signers may share a similar privacy interest. “Drop-in-the-bucket” political gestures ought not extinguish political obscurity.
Volume 85, No. 2, Winter 2013