How to Petition the Government in Under 5 Minutes

White House Allows Americans to Petition Government on the Web

Petition Signing
Young Men Signing Petition On City Sidewalk. ML Harris/Getty Images

Got a gripe?

Congress is prohibited from restricting the right of American citizens to petition the government under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1791. The authors of the amendment surely had no idea just how easy it would become to petition the government in the age of the Internet more than 200 years later.

President Barack Obama, whose White House was the first to use social media such as Twitter and Facebook, launched the first online tool allowing citizens to petition the government through an official website in 2011.

The program, called We the People, allows users to create and sign petitions on any topic.

"When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens," Obama said in announcing the program in September 2011. "That's what the new We the People feature on is all about - giving Americans a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most to them."

The Obama White House often portrayed itself as one of the most transparent to the public in modern history. Obama's first executive order, for example, directed the Obama White House to shed more light on presidential records. Obama has, however, come under fire for operated behind closed doors.

How to Petition the Government Online

The We the People tool allows Americans over the age of 13 to create and sign petitions on asking the Obama administration to "take action on a range of important issues facing our country." All that is required is a valid email address.

"Creating or signing a petition is just the first step. It's up to you to build support for a petition and gather even more signatures. Use email, Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth to tell your friends, family and coworkers about the petitions you care about," the White House said.

The Obama administration promised that any petition that has 5,000 signatures attached to it will be sent to the "appropriate policymakers." "If a petition meets the signature threshold, it will be reviewed by the Administration and an official response will be issued," the administration said.

The White House said any official response will be not only by emailed petition-signers by posted on its website as well. The We the People site was to open in late September 2011.

What It Means to Petition the Government

The right of Americans is guaranteed under the Constitution's First Amendment, which reads: "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."

The Obama administration, acknowledging the importance of the right, said: "Throughout our nation's history, petitions have served as a way for Americans to organize around issues that matter to them, and tell their representatives in government where they stand."

Petitions played important roles, for example, in ending slavery and guaranteeing women the right to vote.

Other Ways to Petition the Government

Though the Obama administration was the first to allow Americans to petition the government through an official U.S. government website, other countries had already allowed such activities online.

The United Kingdom, for example, operates a similar system called e-petitions.

That country's system requires citizens to collect at least 100,000 signatures on their petition on their online petitions before they can be debated in the House of Commons.

The major political parties in the United States also allow Internet users to submit suggestions that are directed to members of Congress. There are also many privately run website that allow Americans to sign petitions that are then forwarded to members of the House of Representatives and Senate.

Of course, Americans can still write letters to their representatives in Congress, send them email or meet with them face-to-face.