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Freedom of Petition


The freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances was recognized in magna carta in 1215 and was well established in English law before the American Revolution. The king would summon Parliament to supply funds for the running of government and Parliament developed the habit of petitioning for a redress of grievances as the condition of supplying the money. The growing recognition of the right of subjects as well as of Parliament to petition the Crown culminated in the explicit affirmation in the English bill of rights of 1689 "That it is the right of the subjects to petition the King and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal."

In the United States Constitution, the first amendment protects "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Historically, the freedom of assembly was regarded as ancillary to the right of petition, as if the amendment guaranteed the right to assemble in order to petition the government. This view was expressed by the Supreme Court in united states v. cruikshank (1876). Today, however, the right of assembly has independent significance equal to that of the freedoms of speech, press, and religion. (See dejonge v. oregon.) The right to petition has received less judicial attention than the other First Amendment rights. Nevertheless, it is one of the freedoms protected by the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment against infringement by the states. (See hague v. cio.) Comparable protections of the right of petition are found, expressly or by clear implication, in the constitutions of all the states. And the right to petition Congress for redress of grievances has been recognized as one of the privileges of national citizenship protected against state infringement by the privileges or immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. (See twining v. new jersey.)

The right of petition includes the right not only to approach public officials directly with requests for redress of grievances but also to circulate petitions for signature so as to generate mass pressure on the Congress and other public bodies. It is in this context that the right of petition may have its greatest contemporary significance. For the exercise of the right of petition involves the exercise of other First Amendment rights, including not only the right of expression but the right of other people to be exposed to the ideas expressed in the petition. The act of preparing and circulating a petition is itself an exercise of the freedom to associate with others for the expression of political and other opinions. Justice william j. brennan, dissenting in Boston v. Glines (1980), remarked: "The petition is especially suited for the exercise of all these rights: It serves as a vehicle of communication; as a classic means of individual affiliation with ideas or opinions; and as a peaceful yet effective method of amplifying the views of the individual signers." As with other First Amendment rights, the freedom of petition cannot be infringed in the absence of a compelling governmental interest justifying the infringement; the right of petition is an essential component of the political liberties protected by the First Amendment.

Charles E. Rice

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