The right to petition in the United States
is guaranteed by the First Amendment
to the Constitution
, and specifically prohibits Congress
from abridging "the right of the people...to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
." Although often overlooked in favor of other more famous freedoms
and sometimes taken for granted, many other civil liberties
are enforceable against the government only by exercising this basic right, making it a fundamental right in both representative democracies
(to protect public participation) and constitutional republics
, like the United States.
The American right of petition is derived from British precedent. In Blackstone's Commentaries
, first published in 1765, Americans in the Thirteen Colonies
read that "the right of petitioning the king, or either house of parliament, for the redress of grievances" was a "right appertaining to every individual".
In 1776, the Declaration of Independence cited King George's perceived failure to redress the grievances listed in colonial petitions, such as the Olive Branch Petition of 1775, as a justification to declare independence:
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Historically, the right can be traced back to English documents such as Magna Carta, which, by its acceptance by the monarchy, implicitly affirmed the right, and the later Bill of Rights 1689, which explicitly declared the "right of the subjects to petition the king".
The first significant exercise and defense of the right to petition within the U.S. was to advocate the end of slavery by petitioning Congress in the mid 1830s, including 130,000 such requests in 1837 and 1838. In 1836, the House of Representatives
adopted a gag rule
that would table
all such anti-slavery petitions. John Quincy Adams
and other Representatives eventually achieved the repeal of this rule in 1844 on the basis that it was contrary to the right to petition the government.
While the prohibition of abridgement of the right to petition originally referred only to the federal legislature (the Congress
) and courts
, the incorporation doctrine
later expanded the protection of the right to its current scope, over all state and federal courts and legislatures and the executive branches of the state and federal governments. The right to petition includes under its umbrella the right to sue
the government, and the right of individuals, groups, and possibly corporations
to lobby the government.