Petition, right of Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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.First Amendment

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.

Cases

Often the right to petition has been considered together with other rights, such as that of assembly. In Thornhill v. Alabama[case]Thornhill v. Alabama[Thornhill v. Alabama] (1940), the Court held that orderly union picketing was a protected form of assembly and petition, and thus the state law constraining it was unconstitutional. On the other hand, in United States v. Harriss[case]Harriss, United States v.[Harriss, United States v.] (1954), the Court upheld a federal law requiring certain lobbyist to register themselves. In Edwards v. South Carolina[case]Edwards v. South Carolina[Edwards v. South Carolina] (1963), the Court overturned the convictions of 180 African American students who had marched peaceably in protest of racial discrimination. The police claimed that because a hostile crowd was waiting for the students at the end of their march, it was necessary to arrest them to prevent a riot. The Court held that even a disorderly crowd, let alone the fear of one, does not trump the right of petition.

In United States v. Grace[case]Grace, United States v.[Grace, United States v.] (1983), the Court overturned a federal law against picketing and handing out leaflets on the steps of the Supreme Court’s building. However, the Court has shown less tolerance toward the right to petition when it touches on military issues. In Brown v. Gilnes[case]Brown v. Gilnes[Brown v. Gilnes] (1980), it held that base commanders could prevent military personnel from sending a petition to Congress, and in Walters v. National Association of Radiation Survivors[case]Walters v. National Association of Radiation Survivors[Walters v. National Association of Radiation Survivors] (1985), the Court upheld a $10 limit on the amount a veteran could pay an attorney to pursue claims with the Veterans Administration, arguing that the limit was not a constraint on the right to petition.

In Burson v. Freeman[case]Burson v. Freeman[Burson v. Freeman] (1992), a Tennessee law forbidding campaign-related speech within one hundred feet of the entrance to a polling place was overturned. The Court noted that the law was a “content-based restriction on political speech in a public forum.” In McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission[case]McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission[MacIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission] (1995) the Court invalidated an Ohio law that prohibited the distribution of campaign literature that did not contain the name and address of the person or campaign official issuing the literature, and in Talley v. California[case]Talley v. California[Talley v. California] (1960) the Court invalidated an ordinance prohibiting all anonymous leafleting. More recently, in Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation[case]Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation[Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation] (1999), the Court overturned a Colorado statute that imposed a requirement that petition circulators wear identification badges and organizations initiating petition drives meet strict reporting requirements.

Controversy

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.

Further Reading
  • 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

Common law

Edwards v. South Carolina

Thornhill v. Alabama

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