The First Freedoms
The Privacy Amendments
The 5th Amendment
The 6th Amendment
Civil Trials
The Interpretive Rules

Freedom of Petition and Assembly

Historical Background

Petitioning the King

In 1215 Magna Carta recognized the rights of English noblemen to petition their king. Petitions had special relevance for a monarchy: they were usually the only way to bring grievances before royal notice. The right to petition Parliament was granted to every British subject. In the Declaration of Independence, the colonies complained that for every grievance they listed, “we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.”

Since much of American law is derived from its British forebears, it is not surprising that this right, as well as the right to assemble, was recognized in early colonial statutes. Even before the Revolution, the Continental Congress had declared that the people not only “have a right peaceably to assemble . . . and petition the King,” but also that the government could not pass or enforce laws punishing these assemblies and petitions after they happened (in language that was similar to the English Bill of Rights of 1689). These twin declarations may seem to us today as two sides of the same coin, but for the early colonists the second declaration was a more secure protection. After all, the freedom of speech and the press at this time did not mean that government could not prohibit certain kinds of speech or punish an individual for certain kinds of publications; it only meant that it could not exercise prior restraint.

Is the Right to Assembly Necessary?

With this kind of pedigree behind it, the right to petition the government was so firmly established that Congressman Theodore Sedgwick of Massachusetts questioned the need to include it in the 1st Amendment. He pointed out that the amendment already protected the freedom of speech, and “if people freely converse together, they must also assemble for that purpose.” He feared that Congress was beginning to descend into minutia, and if they were going to single out the rights of assembly then they might as well also specify “that a man should have a right to wear his hat if he pleased . . . and go to bed when he thought proper.” Others, however, pointed out that the right of assembly was one of the important freedoms that tyrannical governments sought to suppress; therefore, it should receive explicit protection.