The Power of Petitions

Posted by on Jul 16, 2012 in Blog, Take Action | Comments

The Power of Petitions

by:  MOHAMAD SOUEIDAN  Published July 04, 2012

Congress Shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

First Amendment, The Constitution of the United Sates

The First Amendment of the American Constitution has much of the universal values as many laws and declarations we recognize in our time to be important in the development and encoding of laws and legislations.  These same laws and legislations are aimed at protecting human beings from transgressions and enabling them to express their inner desires and aspirations.

The First Amendment provides a good topic for discussion in this paper, with regards to highlighting the importance of petition and petitioning for demands and rights.  Also, the Amendment puts the discussion on track as to why petitioning is a good form of public expression and mobilization for public rights.  Before we begin the discussion, we need to pay a close attention to two ideas mentioned in the Amendment.

Historical Analysis

First, a petition is used in the context of an individual or group of citizens who want to raise awareness for an issue and then pushing it up the political and decision-making ladder.  Such engaged activists believe a certain issue is of so much value that a fast tracked solution is needed when formal institutions are not acting fast enough or acting in a harmful manner against an issue they consider important. Consequently, one of the best ways to draw attention to an issue starts by opening a petition debate to change policies or action in a direct engagement strategy.  Once on track, the ‘issue- in-petition’ will start gaining momentum by citizens who adopt a given issue, they will keep putting pressure on decision-makers to address the issue.

The path is different for every level of progress a petition is making, so are the stages it passes before reaching the final destination.   An ‘issue-in-petition’ is what was identified by issue advocators/activists as an important matter that needs to be addressed.  These advocators/activists either use personal judgment to assess the importance of an issue or seek aid from professional authority, such as scientists and public policy professionals, to substantiate the value of their issue.

The ‘issue-in-petition’ then moves in specific order of steps that begins with moving it horizontally by advocators/activists who are an engaged group of citizens that want to raise awareness of the ‘issue-in-petition.’   This is the group that becomes ultimately responsible for doing the follow up on petition progress and could eventually end up having to do most of the work, moving the petition in different directions.  Their next move is to push the ‘issue-in-petition’ vertically upward, once they receive consent from issue supporters who are individuals with interest in the ‘issue-in-petition,’ they are willing to sign their names on the petition form and want to initiate the petition process.  In some cases the petitioning process is not so large and might require the support and signature of one individual to move it upward (This part will be covered later in this paper).

After receiving support and consent the petition is moved horizontally again until it reaches the institution of authority that is identified in the petition as the target decision-maker who is capable of causing a change.  Within an institution of authority, a petition will either remain at a horizontal level because it has already reached the final decision-making point, or it could then be pushed up vertically in order to reach the final point of decision to grant the demand.  All this leads to one simple conclusion, a decision is granted either by will or from pressure, but it begins with requesting it to happen, and that is why it is also important to remember that the origin of petition comes from the Latin word Petere, which is to request [1].

The First Amendment in spiritus explains the function and process of a petition in the manner of requesting something to be done from a higher authority.  Being proposed in a manner of request combines the political activism element with the religious context of the word.   Historically, petition was essentially aimed at inciting god to cause something to happen by pleading worshipers who want the deity to grant a given request, which is deemed by worshipers to be for their own benefit.  This type of petition is still used today in many religions and in different forms.  The Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem place petitions inside the cracks of ancient stones to ask for favours, so does the Hindus, certain Muslim believers and some Catholic believers who use petitions to request God’s help in personal, business or family matters.

The second observation has to do with the placement of the word Petition in the last phrase of the First Amendment.  Petitions are some of the most important peaceful means to entreat public figures to accept and eventually support the petitioners’ argument.  In addition to petition there are always dramatic and effective measures such as hunger strikes and various types of strikes or public (peaceful) disobedience in general.   Being one of the dynamic and considerable exercises of mass power by the populace petitioning has mustered an aura of authority that enabled it to cause varying degrees of change by peaceful means, which is why this method is not at a disadvantage if used well and used wisely, otherwise why would the fathers of independence take to pains inserting petitioning in the First Amendment as a form of exercising democratic rights if it has not historically proven to be effective.

There are many historical accounts on the origin of petitioning for rights, requests or demands, and the various historical forms of petition.  One of the early and most famously documented records on the use of petition took place one year after the Glorious Revolution, in 1689.  The term petition was coined officially and recognized as a form of request in Articles (5) of the English Declaration of Rights.  The Article stated that the subjects of the king are entitled to petition the king without fear of persecution.[2]  However, that right was already mentioned and previously recognized in the Magna Carta (AD 1215), but the English kings were somewhat at liberty translating it when it stood against their wishes.  It did not become in full use in political circles nor did it gain official prestige until King James decided to prosecute seven Anglican bishops after they refused to read some of his proclamations during mass services (Wilkes, 1989).[3]  The court proceedings proved to the bishops that they had the right to petition the king on not reading the proclamation in church, and that right became entrenched in the Declaration permanently.  It was unthinkable at that time to challenge the kings and their ‘Divine Rights’ in absolutist Europe under any pretext.  This event proved to be one of the several igniting factors that caused the spread of revolutions in Europe years after, all else being equal.  Challenging the rights of kings came as a natural progression in the use of democratic rights that paved its way slowly into full-fledged and developed political systems that replaced absolute monarchies with democratic regimes.

With the new wave of republicanism that spread throughout Europe after the Great War and the defeat of many royal regimes (mainly the German and Austrian monarchies, England was already a constitutional monarchy) newer and more developed laws came into place on the international stage.  The new republican regimes advocated universal values coupled with progressive efforts to put into place an organized system of governance to share these values among the world population.  Of course that was put on hold during the Second World War and after the use of the atomic bomb to decimate an innocent population, seemingly pushing the pause button on the universal declaration of human rights until the war came to an end!  By the end of WWI much scientific development had taken place and the human race became more knowledgeable about tools that could wipe the human race magnificently out of existence or help cure diseases and understand the scientific nature of our environment much better with the discovery of information in these fields (deep sea exploration, space and moon exploration, naturally reoccurring elements, etc..)

Through the accumulated knowledge about ourselves and the planet it was necessary to create political and legal devices to understand how to organize the newly acquired information about our environment in its physical forms, and to spread the information through professional entities that want to share it with the public and help in the decision-making process.  Subsequently, matters related to social or environmental issues cannot all be regulated by legislations and governed by unprogressive laws simply because ours is a constantly developing world, what we knew ten years ago seems outdated compared to what we know today.  This argument is most certainly valid in the debate on environmental issues.

Environmentally Speaking Canada

Petitioning for the environment is possibly one of the most remarkable and contemporary ways to communicate concerns about global environmental phenomenon that have been plaguing our planet ever since human existence took place on this earth.  Concerns for global environmental issues have been witnessing a steady rise in raising awareness about the environment and it has particularly picked up momentum in the latter half of the twentieth century.  There are many issues that environmentalists, the scientific communities and policy makers have not been able to consolidate or even agree on their priorities so far, but with more scientific evidence and determination to turn past policy practices into something productive, the drive toward improving our approach to environmental issues is also on the rise.  That, in the most part, is due to the great mobilisation work and efforts that have been undertaken by environmental activists and scientists who brought environmental issues to the fore; their work gained further strength when they collaborated with environmental organizations and global environmental associations.  Today, some of most important tools used to advocate environmental issues are petitions used to pressure decision and law makers to favour environmental policies that will improve the quality of life and improve our stewardship practices on this planet.

Although Canada does not stand today in an ideal place on environmental policies and world leadership in terms of producing solutions for global warming and carbon emissions, but we do have some established policies that deal with environmental issues.  It is worth noting that current research indicates that Canada is expected to increase its share of Green House Gas emission up to 18.4 percent by 2020, compared to its share in 2010, if no government action was taken.[4]  But the image is not so bleak.  Within the federal government there are structured and established government policies that encourage petitioning for environmental issues and the process itself is protected by important government institutions, even when the government in power does not consider environmental issues a priority.

There are two important governing bodies in Canada that act as enablers for the petitioning process.  The Parliament of Canada has clear laws about the format on any petition, where it should be addressed and the type of language used in it.[5]  On a more detailed level, the Office of the Auditor General of Canada (OAG) provides a detailed guide to environmental petition in the Canadian context.  The Auditor General Act enabled the OAG to produce a document that has full legal powers to organize the environmental petition process and decide the eligibility of petitions based on the category the Act has provided.  In addition to being well structured and free for all to submit any type of environmental petition, the Act states that the petitioner(s) does not need more than his or her own signature to question any levels of the federal government on an environmental matter.  It allows any Canadian resident to petition and question 28 department on their environmental policies, furthermore, the person requesting petition is entitled to receive an answer within 120 days (with possible extension).   The Commissioner of Environment at the OAG monitors petitions and provides responses every year, through two means, a published report and tabling of findings in Parliament.[6]  The Act does not constitute a one and only means to petition the government, department of interest, or Parliament for a certain issue.

Petitioning the Parliament directly for any issue or using the OAG guide to petition for an environmental matter is a regulated process.   There are conditions that have to be met in order to have a substantial and far reaching petition outcome.  The two modes of petitioning mentioned here described the technical process and the specific tools needed to start a petition, but what’s also important is to understand how to start a petition and how to generate the basic mechanisms necessary to make a petition work and produce what it is supposed to produce, whether it will go through Parliament, the OAG or other channels.  All that to say, the two government entities are not the only exclusive bodies to generate and continue a petition, it is quite possible to use different alternatives and push a petition in a different path, but the only guarantee for success is to be aware of certain conditions that will help guide the path to an effective petitioning outcome.  These conditions are:

Condition 1: establish the cause

Petition are target specific and issue sensitive.  Once a cause or demand is identified it becomes important to have someone write the petition request or subject matter in a concise and clear manner.  It must not be suggestive, meaning it gives options to petition receivers (those who will grant the demand) to interpret it at their own will, or allow them to interpret it the way they want.  Within the area of cause selection, a petition must be clear on the chosen issue and the issue has to be reasonable and attainable.  Wording the argument for a petition must have a valid and logical based solution and its implication result in common good.

Condition2: find a petition supporter who is a decision-maker 

Petitions are aimed at someone or an entity that are obviously functioning in a decision-making range and must have some sort of authority to support change.  It is important to identify a decision-maker who shares similar interests to those who are advocating the ‘issue-in-petition’, and if that person cannot be found because somehow they come from a position of power that puts them in the ultimate decision-making circle, then contacting another decision-maker who can press for the issue and act as the advocate might be a wise decision to take.  That being said, in a democratic system politicians cannot risk public shaming for not responding to demands from citizens, sometimes stirring up the pot a little can cause a favourable reaction from a non-favourable decision maker.

Condition 3: Follow up until it passes

Some petitions take a very long time to reach the final stage, which is granting the request.  That’s why they need ongoing work and constant follow up.  Making a petition request turn into reality might involve putting more funding, increased pressure and ongoing activism, in addition to using other legal lobbying resources.  Lobbying might carry some negative connotations because it implies meddling with the political process to favour certain biases, but in reality it is not so because it helps guarding the progress path for a petition and it allows follow up by asking continuous questions, which is all part of the democratic process.

The essence of petitions is to stand behind an issue of significance to petitioners, and be able to state that issue in a known medium.  That medium could be a piece paper or an online process that acts as a forum for advocacy.  The petitioning process must end with placing a petition advocate’s name under the statement or request paragraph.  Starting petitions can be easy, especially because some types of petitions do not need more than one signature belonging to a Canadian resident to initiate it.  The technical procedures are usually not complicated in many instances.  There are certain formats to be followed and in worst case scenario, if someone was flimsy at creating a good petition process they might end up repeating the process until they get it right.  Petitioning is an entrenched democratic right that has been in practice for centuries.  It was a religious practice, turned political, and then turned into a democratic right that can partially claim an important value in supporting freedom of expression and right to demand from authorities to change policies or reveal information.

Work Cited

“Word Definition,” Mariam-Webster Dictionary, accessed 15 April 2012

“The Glorious Revolution and The English Bill of Rights,” University of California, Los Angeles, accessed 22 April 2012

“The Forgotten Tricentennial; England’s Glorious Revolution,” University of Georgia School of law, accessed 8 May 2012

“Canada’s Emission Trends,” Environment Canada, accessed 1 May 2012

“Forms and Contents of Petitions-Guidelines,” Parliament of Canada, accessed on 1 May 2012

“Getting Answers: A Guide to Environmental Petitions Process,” The Office of the Auditor General of Canada, accessed on 1 May 2012


Interesting websites for review:

[1],, 15 April 2012

[2]University of California, Los Angeles:, 22 April 2012

[3] University of Georgia School of Law: 8 May 2012

[4] Environment Canada:,, 1 May 2012

[6] Office of the Auditor General of Canada:,, 1 May 2012

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