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Constitutional education, history, commentary, reform, compliance, and interpretation.

2011/06/20

Case interpreting the Petition Clause

The Supreme Court rendered a decision June 20, 2011, in Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri

This is probably the most significant case interpreting the Petition Clause of the First Amendment, which states:
Congress shall make no law… abridging … the right of the people… to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The particular holding in the case is not very important. It is that in cases involving a government employee suing the government employer for retaliation for filing a grievance, the employee’s claim that such retaliation violates the Petition Clause of the First Amendment is governed  by the same Connick v. Myers/Pickering test which applies when the employee claims that such retaliation violates the Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

But the case is significant in several ways:

(1) It recognizes that lawsuits are “Petitions” under the First Amendment. This is a much-debated academic issue, and one on which Justice Scalia dissented in the opinion;

(2) It explains that the Petition Clause and Speech Clause are not always coextensive, and leaves open the possibility that here may be additional claims under the Petition Clause which plaintiffs may invoke consistent with the purpose of that Clause.

Here is the relevant language from the majority opinion on this point:
It is not necessary to say that the two Clauses are identical in their mandate or their purpose and effect to acknowledge that the rights of speech and petition share substantial common ground. This Court has said that the right to speak and the right to petition are “cognate rights.” Thomas v. Collins, 323 U. S. 516, 530 (1945); see also Wayte v. United States, 470 U. S. 598, 610, n. 11 (1985). “It was not by accident or coincidence that the rights to freedom in speech and press were coupled in a single guaranty with the rights of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition for redress of grievances.” Thomas, 323 U. S., at 530. Both speech and petition are integral to the democratic process, although not necessarily in the same way. The right to petition allows citizens to express their ideas, hopes, and concerns to their government and their elected representatives, whereas the right to speak fosters the public exchange of ideas that is integral to deliberative democracy as well as to the whole realm of ideas and human affairs. Beyond the political sphere, both speech and petition advance personal expression, although the right to petition is generally concerned with expression directed to the government seeking redress of a grievance.
Courts should not presume there is always an essential equivalence in the two Clauses or that Speech Clause precedents necessarily and in every case resolve Petition Clause claims. See ibid. (rights of speech and petition are“not identical”). Interpretation of the Petition Clause must be guided by the objectives and aspirations that underlie the right. A petition conveys the special concerns of its author to the government and, in its usual form, requests action by the government to address those concerns. See Sure-Tan Inc., supra, at 896–897.
This Court’s opinion in McDonald v. Smith, 472 U. S. 479 (1985), has sometimes been interpreted to mean that the right to petition can extend no further than the right to speak; but McDonald held only that speech contained within a petition is subject to the same standards for defamation and libel as speech outside a petition. In those circumstances the Court found “no sound basis for granting greater constitutional protection to statements made in a petition . . . than other First Amendment expressions.” Id., at 485. There may arise cases where the special concerns of the Petition Clause would provide a sound basis for a distinct analysis; and if that is so, the rules and principles that define the two rights might differ in emphasis and formulation.
The question of the Petition Clause’s scope is relevant to constitutional limitations on lobbying lawsBorough of Duryea suggests that lobbying laws may be subject to both Speech and Petition objections.  It will be interesting to see how the jurisprudence in this area develops given this opening from the Court to develop a broader basis for the Petition Clause claims.

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