Why would a citizen petition the government and is it effective?

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Answered by: Joseph, An Expert in the Activism Category
As human beings, we have an unalienable right to freedom of speech, and as Americans the First Amendment to our Federal Constitution guarantees and protects this right. An integral part of this unalienable right is the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Many states also have these protections spelled out in their constitutions; for example, here in Pennsylvania our constitution at Article I, Sections 7 and 20 guarantees and protects this right. So why are many government officials who have taken an oath of office to uphold and defend the Constitution so hostile to these rights?

Despite these constitutional protections and guarantees, citizen petitions to public officials in America are often ignored at all levels of government; from local municipalities to state and Federal agencies that ignore requests for public information or answers to legitimate questions of authority. Americans encountering these types of roadblocks have some tools at their disposal; for example, Pennsylvania has enacted its Right to Know Act where a citizen can make a request under this law to get public information. Likewise, the Federal government has enacted the Freedom of Information Act where a citizen can request public information under this law

Americans have always believed they are entitled to an answer when they exercise their right to petition the government for redress of a grievance; however, the United States Supreme Court has held otherwise. In 1984 the Supreme Court held in Minnesota Board for Community Colleges v. Knight, 465 U.S. 271 (1984) that:

”Nothing in the First Amendment or in this Court's case law interpreting it suggests that the rights to speak, associate, and petition require government policymakers to listen or respond to communications of members of the public on public issues.”

Justice John Paul Stevens stressed in his dissent in Minnesota Board for Community Colleges, “The First Amendment was intended to secure something more than an exercise in futility.” Indeed. The right to petition the government at any level to right a wrong or correct a problem is meaningless if that right can be ignored by our public officials with the apparent sanction of the Supreme Court.

So what can a body of free people do when their rights are ignored by those in positions of power? Well, the Declaration of Independence addressed this very issue when it said,

“That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, …”

Pennsylvania’s Constitution at Article I, Section 2. also addressed this issue by stating;

“For the advancement of these ends they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.”

The founding fathers acknowledged our unalienable rights and wrote protections of those rights into our constitutions. As it appears that We the People can no longer depend on our public officials or the courts to uphold and honor our rights, it is time for us to stand up for those rights as the brave people in Tunisia and Egypt are doing right now, no doubt inspired by America’s founding documents.

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