Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people…to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

There has been a general realization that Web 2.0, infused with user-generated content as well as connectivity unmediated by traditional gate keepers and limitations (e.g., social institutions, geographic limits), is different than the web that preceded it. This will affect politics, but in ways that aren’t clear right now. This idea of an interactive and a more participatory democracy are embedded in interesting places, for example the First Amendment:

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.

Of course, standing in the light of such famous freedoms (of the press, to peaceably assemble, establishment of religion being prohibited) the freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances has not shown out very much. There have been very few interpretations by the court of what that means and very few challenges to existing laws based on the ‘right of the people to petition the government for redress of grievances’ but, given the potential of Web 2.0 to connect formerly disparate people and create communities of interest, I think that’s about to change. And there is a recent story from Holland that shows how this is developing.

Of course there are those who decry the loss of structure that previous media institutions gave to public debate, and they are right about one thing: the next developments should create a very dynamic and unstable environment. If you like that, Web2.0 is good, if you don’t Web 2.0 is your worst nightmare. I’m neutral about that, but the only way to channel web 2.0 towards the incumbents would be to remove some freedoms, and that has to be bad, especially as the freedoms that would require adjustment lie at the heart of the bill of rights. Another interesting aspect is that unstable environments will still seek an equilibrium, but that equilibrium will take time and it is a chance for constituencies who have basically been ignored to get their causes on the public aganda, and it is also the time new power structures to come into existence. I would hope for example that this is the time for a reformed American Green Party to become a contender at the national level (that is a different post).

So, here’s an interesting taste of what’s in store. In Holland, the Friends of the Earth gathered a quite impressive 100,000+ signatures for a campaign to ‘stop bad meat’ which would have made certain kinds of factory farming illegal. The proposal was handily defeated in parliament, which isn’t surprising, since none of the traditional gatekeepers to power were involved in it’s creation. I find the dis-congruence between the popularity of the measure among the general population and the ease with which the proposal was defeated in parliament meaningful.

The devil, as they say, is always in the details. There doesn’t seem to be a doubt that the Web had helped the Friends of the Earth connect to more than 100,000 to create a community of interest. It’s interesting how revolutionary the measure really was, in the words of it’s proponents “we want to change the system”

Taking it one step further, if electronic signatures were allowed on such documents, which doesn’t seem to be outside of the realm of possibility, what would happen then? At a certain point in the development of technology, won’t it be unreasonable NOT to allow electronic signatures on petitions? Won’t a system not recognizing the validity of such signatures (again, given a sufficiently advanced technology) be unconstitutional? Isn’t it hypocritical to allow electronic votes but not electronic signatures on petitions? All this, and more, in future litigation over what the ‘right to petion the government for the redress of grievances’ really means, in the age of Web 2.0.

But first, what happens when an (almost) irresistible force meets a (temporarily) immovable object, from the Radio Netherlands website (BTW Radio Netherlands has revised and improved its web site recently, I suggest taking a look.)

Dutch MPs make mincemeat of citizens’ initiative

The first citizens’ initiative in The Netherlands has been rejected by parliament. The ‘stop bad meat’ initiative was started to make livestock farming more animal-friendly and less harmful to the environment.
Friends of the Earth, an international network of environmental organisations, say that animals are confined in overcrowded conditions that pollute the earth, air and water, and that rain forests are being cut down to provide soya for their feed.

Wouter van Eck, chairman of Milieudefensie/Friends of the Earth Netherlands, explains why more than 100,000 Dutchmen signed the citizens’ initiative.

“We want to get rid of factory farming in the Netherlands. Many chickens and pigs are kept inside and don’t have space. They cannot show their natural behaviour. So, animal rights are violated.
And this industry is bad for the environment. The manure produced by cattle is a threat to the environment. And they eat soya, produced in for instance Brazil, where the rainforest is cut to grow soya plants. We want to change this agricultural system.”

Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people…to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

2 thoughts on “Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people…to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

  1. injustice prevails says:

    “And to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

    a). Petition the body within the bodies court system
    b). Petition the legislative body within the legislative bodies house/committees/members
    c). The conflict of the respondents interest
    d). No independent body for redress
    e). No independent central administrative office or records/archives/clerks
    f). No enforcement service for notice/hearings/judgments/violations/penalties

    Who enforces a violation of the respondent’s failure to respond to a certified notice of service?
    Who enforces a bona fide judgment for the petitioner?

    See Minnesota Bd. For Community Colleges v Knight, 465 U.S. 271 1984)

    The United States Supreme Court opinion 465 U.S. 271 1984 in part said as follows,

    “Nothing in the First Amendment or in this Court’s case law interpreting it suggests that the rights to petition require government policymakers to listen or respond to individuals’ communications on public issues.

  2. Well, yes certainly the right to petition does not equal the right to be heard, but it does confer other rights, so the right to petition is far from meaningless, for example:

    “Petition-clause immunity as a defense against SLAPPs
    When SLAPPs are defended against on the basis of the petition clause of the First Amendment, nearly all such litigation is dismissed, or summary judgment is entered for the defendant, as Pring and Canan note. Consequently, most of the reported case law is favorable to SLAPP defendants. This lopsided win-loss record has done nothing to discourage the filing of SLAPPs, however. Pring and Canan concluded that SLAPPers do not sue to achieve a litigation outcome; rather, they file to silence their opposition. Generally, the mere filing of the suit — or just the threat of suit — accomplishes that purpose.

    The U.S. Supreme Court and the lower federal courts (and many state courts) have found that the petition clause provides an immunity to citizens who speak out to influence the government. This immunity is sometimes known as Noerr-Pennington immunity, because it has its roots in a line of antitrust cases that hold that efforts to influence public officials through lobbying, publicity, and other contact are protected by the petition clause (and are not a violation of antitrust law) even when the petitioning activity is undertaken for a disfavored motive, such as eliminating competition. (See United Mine Workers v. Pennington, 1965; Eastern Railroad Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, 1961.)”


    However, as it get easier and easier to put a petition together, and in states like California with processes for citizen-initiated legislation, sooner or later the availability of the technology will allow for very quick organization of those citizen-initiated laws. And the laws will be changed to allow for that technology enabled process, as in the Dutch example. We’ll see what happens then.

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