Web site seen as attempt to intimidate petition signers

A woman stares at her computer screen, looking more than a little perplexed at what she sees there, presumably the name of a friend, neighbor or colleague who does not support same-sex marriage. Her daughter sits in the background and the headline reads, “Do they think some families shouldn’t exist?” This is the image on the homepage of a new Web site, KnowThyNeighbor.org, which promises Massachusetts residents information about who supports the ballot initiative that will allow voters to determine the definition of marriage in the Commonwealth.

“In the fall of 2005, extremists will attempt to convince 65,825+ Massachusetts voters to sign a petition that would add anti-family language to our state constitution,” the Web site reads, adding in bold, “Those who sign it will be listed here.”

The site already lists the name, address and zip code of the first 30 signatories, which have been collected and certified by the secretary of state, and promises to list future information about signatories and make it searchable by town, last name and street address. Additionally, the Web site allows those interested to sign up for e-mail updates of who in their neighborhood has signed the petition.

The petition effort the site refers to, VoteOnMarriage.org, would amend the state constitution to limit future marriages to heterosexual couples but leave existing same-sex marriages intact. The question could come before voters by 2008.

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who has said he supports same-sex marriage, approved the initiative on Sept. 7. The campaign to garner some 66,000 signatures for the initiative will take place over a 60-day period from Sept. 21 to Nov. 23.

Kristian Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute which is heading the campaign, said KnowThyNeighbor.org raises his concerns. His name and address are already posed on the site.

“I immediately took it to be a form of intimidation,” he said. “The public service of the names being available is already provided by the secretary of state. There’s no reason to further broadcast the names and to entice the Web site viewers to be personally notified when someone from their town signs the petition.”

According to the Boston Herald, Tom Lang, co-creator of the Web site, said he plans to use the information to express his displeasure with those who sign the petition.

“I have the fight in me now, and if people I know, or that I support, or that I do business with are on that list, I might not support them or their philanthropies or their business,” he told the Herald.

However, the site’s webmaster and other co-creator, Aaron Toleos refutes claims that information on the site is meant to be used for intimidation. The Web site will encourage “civil, legal and respectful discourse,” he said. Citizens who sign the initiative should be held accountable for that action because they are acting as legislators in the political process, Toleos told The Pilot.

“What’s actually happening here is that people are not being intimidated by us, they’re being intimidated by the realization of the process and how integral they are to it, and how powerful they actually are as citizens,” he said.

Toleos added that he hopes making the signatures more accessible will cause voters to take the initiative seriously and only vote if they feel strongly about the issue.

“The signatory requirement of the petition becomes more of a test of how lazy or hardworking the sponsoring organization is rather than a measure of how the people actually feel on the issue,” he said.

Most reasonable people would not sign the initiative if they knew that their signature is public information, he said.

Although Mineau acknowledged that KnowThyNeighbor.org could negatively affect the signature-gathering campaign, he said so far the converse is true.

“Initially we’re seeing a tremendous response from people who are very upset about this and motivated to do something in the opposite direction,” he said.

Currently Mineau’s organization is exploring legal options for having the Web site removed, he said. In the meantime, he encouraged Massachusetts voters to sign the petition and reassured them that even if the Web site continues to operate, it will be several months before any new information is posted.

“The secretary of state has to certify the names by Dec. 7, and then he has upwards of 66,000 or more names that he has to tabulate into a single source document, so that’s going to take some time,” he said.

Even some supporters of same-sex marriage have also denounced the Web site. Marty Rouse, campaign director for Mass Equality, said the Web site should be taken down.

“We strongly oppose it. We think it’s mean-spirited,” he said.

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