September 4, 2019
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The last of the five rights in the First Amendment, petition, may seem to have the least notoriety compared to the other rights. There have only been a handful of Supreme Court cases focused on the right to petition the government, suggesting the right may not attract as much debate. But, according to my peers, many millennials don’t know what the right to petition even means. The Freedom Forum’s 2019 State of the First Amendment Survey found that only four percent of respondents knew the right to petition when asked to identify the First Amendment freedoms. So, perhaps that’s the best place to start: what does “petition” really mean?
The right to petition isn’t just going around the neighborhood asking individuals to sign your appeal – the right to petition is the right to make a complaint or seek change in a peaceful manner from the government without fear of punishment. This right often works alongside the other core First Amendment freedoms; groups or individuals may air grievances by speaking out (speech), publishing opinions (press), or gathering to take to the streets (assembly). It is important to point out: the right to petition only ensures the ability to air grievances, not that they will necessarily be addressed by the government. But, making concerns known is a fundamental part of our democratic process: if enough voters share these concerns and mobilize, elected officials have no choice but to listen, or else lose their seats.
Lobbying, the attempt to influence government officials to pursue or oppose certain policy measures, can fall within the sphere of the right to petition, though there has been limited set precedence on the rights that lobbyists have compared to individuals. Other nations and institutions also have the freedom to petition freedom enshrined in their constitution, including the European Parliament, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Even China has a tradition surrounding petitioning to air grievances for injustices. However, the Chinese government has been known to punish those who speak out, and refuse applications for demonstrations and petitions when these exercises “infringe upon the interests of the state,” as stated in their constitution. This point should not be lost: we must not take our First Amendment rights for granted, but we must also not overlook that these rights often can only be fully realized in a free, equal, and democratic society.