Living in a representative democratic republic such as ours means that each person has the right to stand outside the halls of government and express his or her opinion on matters of state without fear of arrest. Thatâs what the First Amendment is all about.
It gives every American the right to âpetition the government for a redress of grievances.â It ensures, as Adam Newton and Ronald K.L. Collins report for the Five Freedoms Project, âthat our leaders hear, even if they donât listen to, the electorate. Though public officials may be indifferent, contrary, or silent participants in democratic discourse, at least the First Amendment commands their audience.â
As Newton and Collins elaborate: ââPetitioningâ has come to signify 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, even if the activities partake of other First Amendment freedoms.â
Unfortunately, through a series of carefully crafted legislative steps, our government officials â both elected and appointed â have managed to disembowel this fundamental freedom, rendering it with little more meaning than the right to file a lawsuit against government officials. In the process, government officials have succeeded in insulating themselves from their constituents, making it increasingly difficult for average Americans to make themselves seen or heard by those who most need to hear what âwe the peopleâ have to say.