Right of the people to ask their government to redress their grievances.
The First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” As is true of most of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, this right has its origins in English common law. Section 61 of the Magna Carta (1215), for example, describes how barons may exercise their right to petition the Crown for redress of grievances. Under the British Bill of Rights (1689), the fifth item on a list of rights of the people is a right to petition the king. The right is also listed in the Declarations and Resolves of the Continental Congress, and in the Declaration of Independence one of the reasons given for rebellion against the king is that “our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” Of the rights listed in the First Amendment (the other are separation of church and state, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and right of assembly), freedom to petition is the least controversial and the most taken for granted, perhaps because the exercise of the right to petition is less likely to affect the exercise of other rights.
The people have readily and consistently employed their right to petition. Some petitions are formally audited and widely disseminated, with highly sophisticated methods used to gather signatures. In various states, petitions can be used to place initiatives on the ballot in statewide elections. If the initiative receives a sufficient number of votes in the election, it becomes law. Petitions can also be simple, from handwritten personal letters to a small group of homeowners asking a city council member to address a traffic issue on a particular street. A telephone call can also be considered a petition. The Supreme Court has a less onerous task in defining what a petition is than what obscenity or unprotected speech is, given that a petition is clearly a plea that a government or official take some specified action.
Often the right to petition has been considered together with other rights, such as that of assembly. In Thornhill v. Alabama
In United States v. Grace
In Burson v. Freeman
People, corporations, and interest groups have the right to pay lobbyists, public relations firms, and advertisers to advocate their causes before the government and in the media. This fact has led to complaints that equal access for all effectively results in greater access for the wealthy. The Court generally has taken a dim view of limitations, even those motivated by “fairness,” upon the right to petition.
The right has met with some controversy regarding prisoners. Generally, conservatives have cited frivolous complaints by prisoners and have argued that prisoners should not have unlimited access to the ears of government officials. Liberals, in turn, have cited cases seeking redress for the gross mistreatment of prisoners to argue that they should not lose their right to petition the government. This controversy is often subsumed in the larger issue of the rights of prisoners to pursue more formal legal claims.
BeVier, Lillian R. Campaign Finance “Reform” Proposals: A First Amendment Analysis. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1997. Farber, Daniel A. The First Amendment. New York: Foundation Press, 1998. Murphy, Paul L. The Shaping of the First Amendment, 1791 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Shiffrin, Steven H., and Jesse H. Choper. The First Amendment: Cases, Comments, Questions. St. Paul, Minn.: West Publishing, 1996.
Bill of Rights
Edwards v. South Carolina
Thornhill v. Alabama