February 10, 2020 Middle School

Let's Start a Petition!

This lesson discusses the constitutional right to petition, and how petitions have been used in American history. The suffragists and other actors throughout American history used petitions to accomplish their goals. Students will review historical and contemporary petitions and offer ideas about how petitions might be used in their community or state.

Time needed:

  • Class Period

Materials needed: 

  1.  Introduce yourself, Law Day, the 2020 Law Day theme, “Your Voice, Your Vote, Our Democracy: The 19th Amendment at 100,” and how the lesson connects to the theme.
  2. Ask students about their experiences with petitions. Gauge understanding and simply introduce the terms “petition” and “petitioning” if needed.

    A petition is a request to do something, typically to a government agency or public official. The request is made on behalf of a group, with individuals of the group recording their assent in some way, such as signing their name to the request. The concept and practice go far back into human history, with records of ancient Egyptian workers petitioning for improved working conditions. Text of definition is included in the accompanying presentation.

  3. Ask students what some of the benefits of using a petition, compared to other civic action methods, might be.

    Petitions follow a “strength in numbers” principle, as many names may be more persuasive than fewer names. Petitions are typically common and easy to understand. They ask for basic information. They are open to everyone within a specific range, so sometimes more accessible than other civic actions, including voting. They can be low-cost, and circulated and signed in a variety of ways. They can address virtually any topic or issue. Most governments or public offices have protocols in place for accepting petitions. They help to raise public awareness about an issue.

  4. Share with students that the ability to petition the government is a right included in the U.S. Constitution, and try to gauge understanding.
  5. Direct students’ attention to the text of the First Amendment, where “petition” is included among the five freedoms. Ask students why they think a “right to petition” was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. Text is included in the accompanying presentation.
  6. Explain that petitions, especially to Congress to change federal laws or policies in the United States, have appeared throughout the nation’s history. Examples are included in the accompanying presentation.
  7. Highlight and discuss with students the role of petitions in the women’s suffrage movement, and why suffragists might have used petitions as part of their campaign.

    Women used petitions during the suffrage movement in unprecedented numbers, so it is a case study of the role of petitions in U.S. history and the value of an individual right to petition. Scholars suggest that signing a petition was akin to casting a vote for many Americans who could not vote, and that the right to petition was as valuable as suffrage. A major petition emerged from the first major meeting about women’s rights in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. By 1878, Congress had received petitions for suffrage from 30,000 women across the United States. Petition drives became a significant hallmark of the movement, and one cross-country drive collected more than 500,000 signatures. Images are included in the accompanying presentation, including one petition document signed by Frederick Douglass’s son, Frederick Douglass Jr., in 1878.

  8. Shift conversation to the more contemporary uses of petitions. Explain that petitions are used for a variety of purposes today, including to spur changes to laws and policies, but also for certain court and government procedures, like getting onto a ballot to run for office, to remove an elected official from office, or to raise awareness about an issue.
  9. Discuss four common types of petitions:

    Political petitions—have a specific form, address a specific rule set by the state or federal government. Typical examples include nominating petitions filed by political candidates to get on a ballot, petitions to recall elected officials, and petitions for ballot initiatives. They are shared publicly to solicit signers, and typically signers must be U.S. citizens, registered voters, and live in the election district addressed by the petition wording.

    Legal petitions—ask a court to issue a specific order in a pending case or lawsuit, typically filed by attorneys according to court rules using specific forms. These are not shared beyond court and involved parties.

    Public purpose petitions—ask officials to take or not take a specific action. They might be addressed to policymakers, government bodies, or administrative agencies. These are shared publicly to acquire signers. Requirements are minimal or absent.

    Internet or awareness petitions—are conducted entirely online, including via email or social media. They are not always specific as to what actions to take and do not follow established civic or political processes. They are effective at raising public awareness about an issue.

    Examples are included in the accompanying presentation. Similarities and differences are also noted to facilitate discussion. Generally, there are not legal requirements for public purpose and internet petitions. They’re often simply raising awareness about an issue. Legal petitions follow clearly defined formats and court protocols and are specific to individual cases.

  10. Use the four petition types to lead a discussion about typical legal requirements and characteristics of the various petitions.

    Successful petitions to lawmakers typically do four things:

    - Include a clear statement of purpose

    - Include supporting facts

    - Request signatures, or printed name, or both

    - Request an identifying address that proves they are a registered voter or live within a particular jurisdictionAsk students why they think that petitions tend to ask for this information. Ultimately, they should understand that petitions are trying to verify that signatories are relevant parties, and that petitions widely shared by social media—viral petitions—have their limits, compared to other types of petitions.

  11. Tell students they will be looking at real petition forms to get a closer look.

    Distribute copies of a petition form from your city, county, or state, or use the examples provided here. Petition forms might be available from secretaries of state, boards of elections, or city offices. All students could look at the same form together, or two or three different forms may be distributed to groups of students. Allow students time to study their petition documents, then host a discussion with students about their documents.

    Discussion questions might include:

    - What kind of petition do your have? What is its purpose? Who is the recipient?

    - What kind of information does your petition ask of the signer? The person circulating the petition?

    - What other information is included in the document?

    - Assuming this petition has signatures, what message does it send to the recipient?

    - Why might it be important for the recipient to receive this message?

    - How does the petition document reflect any of the ideas or concepts that we’ve discussed?

    - Why do you think using a petition is an effective means to accomplish the intended civic action? Would another approach be as effective?

  12. Wrap up the lesson with discussion about how students might use petitions to effect change or convey important messages to government officials or others. What projects or issues in their community or state might benefit from a relevant petition?