Your Unalienable Right to Petition

Lumpkin County Commissioners (BOC) do not seem to understand or appreciate the Constitutional right being violated by their attempt to control petitions.  Any limitation on the right to petition must be justified by a compelling public interest. Only an emergency could justify restriction of that right.

During the July meeting of the BOC, commissioners voted to require their own exclusive design for any petition submitted to them.  It would require a notarized affidavit from the collector on the back of each page verifying the identity and address of each signer.   As I see it,  picture ID would be required to protect collectors from liabilty for false swearing on the affidavit.  Then Chairman Raber stated in his The Dahlonega Nugget column on September 2 that the action had been taken to protect those who sign from fines and incarceration.

Petition restrictions and threats can only be interpreted as an attempt to make citizens afraid to sign petitions and collectors afraid to collect.  The right to petition has been recognized by courts and historians as the cornerstone of the First Amendment. The original draft of the First Amendment contained only assembly and petition, not speech, press or religion.  Petition is the right to ask government at any level to right a wrong or correct a problem.

“Petitioning” 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.

As for restrictions on the right to petition, Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927 (Whitney v. California), “Although the rights of free speech and assembly are fundamental, they are not in their nature absolute. Their exercise is subject to restriction, if the particular restriction proposed is required in order to protect the State from destruction or from serious injury, political, economic or moral.” These limits must be justified, as Brandeis emphasized, by a compelling public interest. “Only an emergency can justify repression,” said Brandeis. “Such must be the rule if authority is to be reconciled with freedom. Such, in my opinion, is the command of the Constitution. It is therefore always open to Americans to challenge a law abridging free speech [petition] and assembly by showing that there was no emergency justifying it.”

In United Mine Workers of America v. Illinois State Bar Association (1967), the U.S. Supreme Court exalted the right as “among the most precious liberties safeguarded by the Bill of Rights” and implicit in “the very idea of government.” The Court had earlier affirmed the right to engage in such activity; it thus deemed it a fundamental liberty, protected against encroachment by federal, state and local governments.

The petition clause ensures that our leaders hear, even if they don’t listen to, the electorate.  Though public officials may be indifferent, contrary, or silent participants in public discourse, at least the First Amendment commands their audience.

The right to petition government has been so well-established that few have dared challenge it in recent years.  Only elected officials who desire to control their constituents would try to limit this non-violent communication.

The BOC is trying to limit your First Amendment rights.  Will they try to limit your Second Amendment rights next?  Demand your rights, let the commissioners know you want BOC petition requirements rescinded.

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One Response to Your Unalienable Right to Petition

  1. BobG says:

    I am amazed and appalled by the actions of the Commission– at the direction of Chairman John Raber– which has published an “official” petition form. Purportedly, the county will not accept a citizen’s petition unless it is on the county-issued form.

    On Raber’s form, there is a warning of fine and/or imprisonment for false swearing for any petition circulator who violates an oath to ensure that, among other things, petition signers are residents of the county and have read the petition’s statement of purpose.

    Most Americans understand that the “right of petition” is protected by both the U.S. and state constitutions. The government can take no action which might serve to prevent or chill any citizen’s exercise of the right to petition his government.

    In my opinion, no law nor edict of government can dictate the form that this type of “petition” must take. A citizen has the absolute right to petition the government alone or in concert with others; verbally or in writing; and, if in writing, on a billboard, a piece of paper or a dirty napkin.

    Moreover, a petition of this type has no legal weight or effect. It is merely an expression of the sentiment of a segment of the populace. It is unlike a formal petition where the identities and/or qualifications of the petitioners must be confirmed; such as a petition by a percentage of a community’s property owners to seek annexation into a city. A form for that type of petition would be appropriate and proper.

    The Lumpkin Commission Chairman is using the police power of government to squelch the citizens’ participation in the public process. In “formalizing” the petition process, he attempts to create the justification and authority to impose a criminal penalty where no such authority is justified or appropriate. Of course, I believe that Raber’s form is unconstitutional.

    His malicious intent has apparently been evidenced in recent public meetings where he mocked the petition process and even proposed an “I want my taxes raised” petition… that the Commission voted to approve without even knowing on what issue they had actually voted!

    It is a sad day in Lumpkin County when an elected official’s arrogance trumps constitutional rights. The county should IMMEDIATELY rescind this form and accept the Blackburn Park petition and others for what they are– the exercise of a free people’s right to inform and influence their government in whatever manner is required and appropriate.

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