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amendment I: Freedomof Assembly
The First Amendment's assembly and petition clauses--eviscerated by Big Money?

 Martin Luther King addressed civil rights supporters in 1963, relying on First Amendment protection of the right to assemble.
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Date published: 12/4/2005

AUSTIN, Texas--While the great battles fought over the First Amendment's religion and free-speech/-press clauses are some of the most inspiring stories told 'round the legal campfire, the amendment's assembly and petition clauses are mostly a forgotten footnote.

There has been no great legal battle in easy memory over the right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." In 1939, the Supreme Court decided a case, Hague v. Congress of Industrial Organizations, that definitively established "the right of the people peaceably to assemble" in public space, and there's been little discussion since.

Yet both these First Amendment footnotes offer important lessons about the more subtle--and what today are more crucial--obstacles to meaningful democracy that come with our economic system.

The right to petition the government is not really in question in a modern nation-state based on democratic principles. While a king, whose legitimacy was grounded in the concept of divine-right monarchy, might have contested his subjects' rights to press political demands, citizens in a democracy have an inherent right to petition those politicians who are supposed to serve us.

But a question nags: Are all petitions received by our leaders given equal weight? Are rich and poor alike going to be heard? The answer is painfully obvious.

Two realities distort the right of petition in the real world.

First is the reality that political campaigns are exercises in fundraising. For example, 96 percent of House and 91 percent of Senate races in 2004 were won by the candidate who spent the most. Those who provide that funding have an advantage: Money equals access, which means that when the campaign is over, some petitions are more equal than others.

Debates about the constitutionality of campaign-finance reform measures that try to deal with the distorting influence of big money are typically framed by the question of whether they limit the freedom of speech of contributors or candidates. But we might start to think of such reforms as protection of the right of petition.


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