The Right to Petition Government

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Constitution of the United States
The right to petition grants people not only the freedom to stand up and speak out against injustices they feel are occurring, but also grants the power to help change those injustices. The nonprofit community plays an active role by providing an organized medium to join citizens together in support of causes or in petition of practices that violate their cause.


To understand the definition of the concept, right to petition government, one must first understand where this concept originates.  The right to petition is one of the fundamental freedoms of all Americans, and is documented in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. 

The First Amendment consists of five “freedoms,” which are: Religion, Free Speech, Free Press, Assembly, and Petition.  The Petition section of the first amendment, also commonly referred to as the Petition Clause, states 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,” (Copley First Amendment Center) (2).  A more simple definition of the right to petition, is “the right to present requests to the government without punishment or reprisal.  This right is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution” (History Central, 1).

Looking at the specific definition of the word petition, as it relates to the freedom of petition and the First Amendment, the word can be used to describe “any nonviolent, legal means of encouraging or disapproving government action, whether directed to the judicial, executive or legislative branch.  Lobbying, letter-writing, e-mail campaigns, testifying before tribunals, filing lawsuits, supporting referenda, collecting signatures for ballot initiatives, peaceful protests and picketing: all public articulation of issues, complaints and interests designed to spur government action qualifies under the petition clause…” (Copley First Amendment Center) (1).

Historic Roots

The actual concept of petitioning the government is said to reach at least as far back as the Magna Carta, one of the first documented formal legal systems that was composed by Kingdom of England in 1215.  In the Magna Carta (as translated into modern English), it states, “If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us - or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice—to declare it and claim immediate redress.” In other words, although the power was only granted to the 25 barons elected by the King, these barons still had the authority to petition the Kingdom if they felt injustices were being imposed (British Library, 1).  Later, this right to petition was further confirmed in the English Declaration of Rights, written in 1689, which states that subjects of the King are entitled to petition the King without fear of prosecution (Copley First Amendment Center) (1).

Drawing from these historical documents, the framers of the United States Constitution added the Bill of Rights to the Constitution in 1789, which contained the first ten Amendments of the Constitution.  James Madison composed the First Amendment, which contains the clause regarding the right to petition government that we refer to today. 


The right to petition our Government, though often overlooked in comparison with the other freedoms listed in the First Amendment, is nonetheless a very significant right that we have in this country.  This right grants people not only the freedom to stand up and speak out against injustices they feel are occurring, but also grants the power to help change those injustices. 

The right to petition government is a freedom that has been firmly upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States on countless occasions, proving that it is considered an inalienable right by the U.S. Government.  During the civil rights movement, for example, the Supreme Court upheld the rights of several groups of individuals protesting segregation at public institutions such as libraries and schools, and ruled that these citizens had every right to express their rights under the petition clause.

Further, the act of petitioning by citizens has also resulted in the change of certain practices.  This can be seen quite commonly in situations involving environmental practices, and has resulted in victories for many environmental activists and organizations.  For example, Oceana, an international organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of the world’s oceans, recently joined with over 100,000 citizens to sign a petition protesting the practice of long hook fishing in many areas of the Atlantic.  The practice had resulted in the accidental catching and often death of many non-targeted populations, including certain endangered species of sea mammals, turtles and birds.  As a result of the petition, a Federal judge banned the long-line fishing in many areas in order to protect these endangered as well as other ocean species (Oceana Organization).

Because several voices are always louder than one, the right to petition is a valuable tool to citizens in that they can join together to speak out for issues they feel are important to them. 

Ties to the Nonprofit/Philanthropic Sector

As mentioned above, several voices are always louder than one.  With this in mind, the way for citizens to petition the government in an effective way is to join together for a common cause, gaining as many people and as much support as possible. 

The nonprofit community plays an active role in petitioning government by providing an organized medium to join citizens together in support of causes or in petition of practices that violate their cause.  If one person alone were to attempt to find hundreds of others to join him/her in a petition against a certain government practice, for example, it would likely take that person a long time to find the number of people needed to really make an impact in their petition.  However, if that individual joined with a nonprofit organization with members who also supported the same cause, together they could make a significant difference should they choose to petition a government practice.

In addition, citizens can provide financial support to these organizations as a way of exercising their support, knowing that their donations help to fund the protection, and if necessary, petition in support or defense of their cause.  For example, the Environmental Defense Organization is an organization whose purpose is to protect human health, restore ecosystems and curb global warming.  Citizens who feel strongly about these issues can get involved with this nonprofit organization through the donation of time and/or money, and as a large group, this organization can have a heavy impact when it does exercise its petitioning rights.  (Environmental Defense Organization)

Key Related Ideas

Bill of Rights:  This document was composed by United States Forefathers.  It contains the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution. The First Amendment states the right to petition as one of its five listed freedoms in which all citizens are entitled. Petition Clause is the formal name for the right to petition as referred to in the First Amendment. Freedom of Petition is a more common term used to describe the right to petition.

Government Response:  It is important to note that in response to a petition from a citizen or citizens, the government is not required to actually respond or address the issue.  Under the Petition Clause, the Government is only required to provide a way for
citizens to petition, and a method in which they will receive the petition (Copley First Amendment Center) (1).

SLAAP Suits stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.  These lawsuits are sometimes filed against citizens for speaking about against certain issues in front of public councils such as school boards and city councils.  As outlined in the Petition Clause, lawsuits against the public for exercising their right to petition is considered unconstitutional, and these lawsuits are regularly overturned in the United States Court System (ibid.).

Important People Related to This Topic

  • James Madison (1751-1836):  As the writer of the First Amendment, James Madison is responsible for creating the right to petition.  James Madison was born in Virginia in 1751.  In the 1780’s he worked with the other creators of the U.S. Constitution such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to create the Constitution.  From 1809-1817, Madison served as the fourth president to the United States.

  • The Justices of the United States Supreme Court:  There are 9 Supreme Court Justices, whose names have been constantly changing over the past two hundred years as Justices retire and others take office.  As members of the highest court in the United States, the Supreme Court Justices have been responsible for interpreting the Constitution as it applies to the laws created by the Legislative and Executive branches of the US Government. The decisions they have written in the court cases involving the right to petition uphold its importance and citizen’s rights to actively participate in the government process.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nationally recognized organization, founded in 1920, that has assisted many groups and citizens in exercising their constitutional right to petition.  As explained on their Web site,  “The ACLU is our nation's guardian of liberty. We work daily in courts,  legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and  liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws  of the United States.  Our job is to conserve America's original civic values - the  Constitution and the Bill of Rights” (
  • Environmental Defense Network (EDN) is a leading national nonprofit organization whose purpose is, as stated on their web site, to “fight to protect human health, restore our oceans and ecosystems, and curb global warming.” They were founded in 1967 and have petitioned against many injustices towards the environment resulting in significant legislation.  They now have over 400,000 members ( 
  • The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) is a national nonprofit who defends equal treatment and representation for the Gay and Lesbian Community.  They have initiated many petitions against current government practices through actions such as parades, conferences, and written petitions ( 
  • We the People is a nonprofit organization created in 1997. Their purpose and mission is to “protect, preserve and enhance the unalienable rights, liberties and freedoms of the people.”  Keeping this purpose in mind, We The People has initiated many petitions, specifically against political practices (

Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • British Library. The Text of the Magna Carta.
  • Copley First Amendment Center. (1).  Court Cases.
  • Copley First Amendment Center.  (2). History of the First Amendment.
  • Environmental Defense Organization. Environmental Defense Organization.
  • First Amendment Center. Petition Overview.
  • First Amendment Center. Petition FAQs.
  • History Central. U.S. Civic Terms.
  • Oceana. Success Stories.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.