In the United States the right to petition is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the federal constitution, which 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 (Figure 1). The right to petition is a fundamental in a Constitutional Republic, such as the United States, as a means of protecting public participation in government.
The American right of petition is derived from British precedent. In Blackstone's Comment, Last 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."
Uses and Scope
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 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.