The Five Freedoms Project

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5 Things You Can Do: Petition

1. Read Arguing About Slavery

In this insightful book by historian William Lee Miller, we return to the period between 1835 and 1844, when the United States House of Representatives battled over whether Congress could even discuss the subject of slavery and whether "the 'sacred' right of petition" so central to republican government included the right to petition against human bondage.

As the New York Times writes in a 1996 review, “The compromises that made adoption of the Constitution possible in 1789 had included a tacit understanding that the new national Government would not even address the issue of slavery in the states where it already existed. But by the early 1830's, the growing power and organization of antislavery sentiment in the North was challenging the perpetuation of this silence. The conflict over the treatment of antislavery petitions submitted to the House, Mr. Miller argues, was of fundamental importance in defining the meanings of civil liberty and republican government in America. At the same time, it proved a prophetic foreshadowing of the actual war over slavery to come.”

To order Arguing About Slavery, click here.

 

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2. Teach Your Students About the Right to Petition

Since 1999, the mission of the Bill of Rights (BOR) Institute has been to educate young people about the words and ideas of America's Founders, the liberties guaranteed in our Founding documents, and how our Founding principles continue to affect and shape a free society.

In one such lesson, BOR explores the citizen's right to express his or her views to government via petitions. “Indeed,” BOR explains, “the United States was born out of a petition--the Declaration of Independence. This right, however, was severely restricted during the years 1836-1844 when the House of Representatives instituted a ‘gag rule’ to immediately set aside all petitions pertaining to slavery without hearing them.

To access this lesson, click here.

To access the full range of BOR resources, click here.

 

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3. Visit firstamendmentcenter.org’s Petition page

Firstamendmentcenter.org, the official web site of the First Amendment Center, is one of the most authoritative sources of news, information and commentary in the nation on First Amendment issues. It features daily updates on news about First Amendment-related developments, as well as information and detailed reports about U.S. Supreme Court cases involving the First Amendment, and commentary, analysis and special reports involving free expression, press freedom and religious liberty issues.

To help educate your school’s faculty about the right to petition, urge friends and colleagues to visit the Center’s “Petition” web page. Visitors can access a general overview, find answers to key FAQs, access recent news, and peruse a full list of historic cases and resources.

To visit the First Amendment Center’s Petition page, click here.

 

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4. Revisit Your School’s Free-Expression Policies

Visit our free-speech Frequently Asked Questions to ensure your school is striking the right balance between honoring student freedoms, establishing useful school structures, and ensuring that adults are serving as authoritative, not authoritarian, sources of support and guidance.

To visit the FAQs, click here.

 

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5. Sponsor an Annual First Amendment Day

To underscore your community’s commitment to individual freedom, schedule an annual First Amendment Day. Set up a “Speaker’s Corner” and encourage people to share their ideas and disagreements in a spirit of appreciative inquiry. Urge people to decide what central message(s) they want to share, and then have everyone create personal bumper stickers. Engage student journalists to cover the event. Invite the larger community. And be sure to ground all events in a shared commitment to abide by the following First Amendment “ground rules”:
  1. We all have the right to share our voices and ideas;
  2. We all have the responsibility to protect the rights of others -- especially those with whom we most deeply disagree;
  3. We all share a commitment to debate our differences with respect.

 

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