“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 final right protected by the First Amendment is the freedom to petition the government. While it may seem this particular idea is similar to that of free expression, the Founding Fathers believed it was necessary to specifically include the right to make requests of the government directly.
Freedom to Petition
The section in the First Amendment protecting the freedom to petition the government is also known as the Petition Clause. According to the Copley First Amendment Center, this clause argues that “People have the right to appeal to government in favor of or against policies that affect them or in which they feel strongly. This freedom includes the right to gather signatures in support of a cause and to lobby legislative bodies for or against legislation.”
This clause protects our rights to make requests of government bodies or state officials using any legal methods available. This includes emails, collecting signatures, writing letters, giving testimony, filing lawsuits, peaceful protests, and others.
The concept of petitioning the government originated in England in 1215. It was written in the Magna Carta, which was drafted by the people to limit the powers of the king and his government. It allowed the people to make requests of the king through his 25 barons. The right to petition was later adopted in the English Declaration of Rights in 1689, a document that listed the wrongs committed by King James II, and all the rights of common citizens. This declaration was designed to allow the citizenry to address the government without fear of imprisonment.
Why Do We Need this Right?
Similar to the freedoms of expression and assembly, also granted in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Petition Clause empowers Americans to freely voice their concerns without facing punishment. Not only does it allow citizens to speak against injustice and wrongdoing, it also gives them the power to affect change.
Throughout history, Americans have used this right to push the government in the direction they wanted. The Women’s Suffrage movement involved women advocating for voting rights; female activists lobbied the state for the right to vote in elections. During the Civil Rights movement, people of all races called on the government to strike down the Jim Crow laws that turned black Americans into second-class citizens.
It is essential in any free society that the people be allowed to tell the government what they want it to do. Americans have the right to call on their representatives, senators, and any other elected leader in the country.
The Petition Clause reminds us that the government’s role is to serve the people, not the other way around. Of course, petitioning the government may not automatically mean that it will do as citizens ask. If residents living in a particular city wish to have new roads, they can request the mayor and city legislature to build them. If these officials refuse to grant the request, the citizens can simply vote them out and elect people who will listen. This is how a republic functions and the freedom to communicate one’s wishes to the government is at the very foundation of a free society.