The Right of Petition

May 14, 1938

Report Outline
New Manner of Exercising Right of Pettion
Origin and Early Use of Right of Petition
Congress and Modern Method of Petitioning
Personal Mass Petitioning of Legislatures

New Manner of Exercising Right of Pettion

When opponents of the administration's bill for reorganization of federal administrative agencies recently bombarded members of Congress with protesting telegrams and letters, they were in effect exercising the ancient right of petition recognized for centuries in England and guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This right was exercised in earlier times by submission to the legislative body of formal petitions for redress of grievances. It is still to some extent so exercised today, but development of facilities for rapid and easy communication has made more popular the method of direct informal appeals to individual lawmakers by their constituents.

Effectiveness of Telegraphic Appeals to Congress

In recent years Congress on various occasions has shown its sensitiveness to such petitioning. It is probable that the thousands of telegrams showered upon members of the House of Representatives influenced enough votes to bring about the defeat of the reorganization bill at the current session. It had been fully expected that that measure, already approved by the Senate, would be passed by the House, but when it came to a showdown April 8, the House recommitted the bill by the narrow margin of eight votes.

The effectiveness of mass petitioning, through telegrams and letters, in obtaining the passage or defeat of controversial legislation has been similarly demonstrated in several instances in the last few years. On the other hand, in one conspicuous case—that of the contest over the utility holding-company bill in 1935—a telegraphic protest turned into a boomerang when it was disclosed that many of the messages had been solicited and financed by the utilities. It was thus shown that the right of petition, when exercised in the manner now become popular, could be abused, just as the corresponding rights of a free press, free speech, and free assembly can be abused. The right of petition is none the less one of the fundamental rights whose possession by the individual has traditionally been regarded as an essential of democracy.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Lobbying and Special Interests
U.S. Constitution