We, the people, are petitioning for greater gun control, marriage equality, term limits for Congress, bans against animal research, permits to hunt wolves, Texas’ secession from the union and Atlanta’s secession from Georgia.
We, the people, are petitioning to close Wal-Mart stores, build more Wal-Marts, free chimpanzees, pardon pot smokers, teach Creationism, mandate school prayer, repeal Obamacare and institute universal health care.
With ever-improving, ever-expanding digital tools, we, the people, have e-exercised our digits and made the petition all the rage. The fever has even seized anti-petitioners – who are signing a petition to stop petitions.
In May, the Boy Scouts of America will decide whether to repeal a ban against gay Scouts and troop leaders. Public pressure, largely from petition drives over the past year targeting both the youth group and its corporate supporters, propelled the BSA to reconsider a policy it had taken all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend. Only a year ago, the Scouts reaffirmed the anti-gay policy. But petition drives against the policy that were launched on Change.org and promoted by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation/GLAAD have yielded 1.4 million signatures.
In another campaign, Katy Butler, a teenager from Ann Arbor, Mich., launched a Change.org petition last spring that ended with a motion picture rating change for “Bully.” Without the change, a key audience – kids – could not see the documentary. Butler’s petition, witht the help of GLAAD, went viral and found support with more than 500,000 people, including pro athletes, movie stars and members of Congress.
Butler has started other petitions on Change.org, including one to promote LGBT Spirit Day and another to curb bullying in Michigan schools. On Change.org, she says people keep telling LGBT youth that it gets better, but “it can’t get better if you don’t make it better. I’m doing my part to help, please do yours.”
Butler’s “Bully” petition was among the first that Deb Pace of Eau Claire signed. “It was so easy to make a stand,” she says.
Since then, Pace has delved deeper into the Web and connected with progressive petition campaigns at CredoAction, ThePetitionSite and SignOn.org, an affiliate of MoveOn.org, which gets its name from an early Internet petition calling on Congress to move on from its obsession with Bill Clinton and his definition of sexual relations.
“I work the third shift,” Pace says. “That makes it hard to get involved. But I can do my part to fight the right at any hour from my iPhone. Pretty cool.”
The petition is a tool as old as the written word. In the United States, the First Amendment contains a clause guaranteeing the right of the people to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
We, the people, sign official petitions for candidates to qualify for office, petitions for redress in courts and, in some states, petitions for referendums and ballot initiatives.
Historically, Americans also have taken up petitions to free the colonies from British tyranny, to end slavery, to secure the vote for women and to advance the civil rights movement.
The Obama administration recognized this tradition when it created We The People, the online forum where citizens can start a petition or sign a petition – or 175 of them. The site is modeled on the popular e-petition system in the United Kingdom.
The most recent We The People petitions ask the administration to commit resources to ensure an AIDS-free generation, stop the court-ordered euthanasia of a service dog named Dutch, classify the Los Angeles Police Department as a domestic terrorist organization, ratify a treaty on women’s rights and stop a proposed mine in northern Wisconsin. That last petition, as of Feb. 15, needed more than 97,000 signatures by March 8 to draw a White House response.
“It would be nice for the president to weigh in on the issue,” says petition signer Jimmy Benn of La Crosse. “But even without (that), people all over the country are getting information about this serious environmental issue.”
In the first month of We The People, 755,000 people used the platform to create or sign more than 12,400 petitions that gathered more than 1.2 million signatures. There was a new user about every 15 minutes and a signature added every 23 minutes.
While the White House petition site is popular – so much so that the administration recently increased from 25,000 to 100,000 the number of signatures required to generate a response from the administration – it doesn’t rival Change.org. A year ago, Change.org had about 7 million users. Today the world’s largest petition platform has more than 25 million members and petitioners from every country. About 140 million signatures have been attached to Change.org petitions since 2010, when the site had a million users.
On an “about” page, Change.org explains its role: “Gathering people behind a cause used to be difficult, requiring lots of time, money, and a complex infrastructure. But technology has made us more connected than ever.
“It’s now possible for anyone to start a campaign and immediately mobilize hundreds of others locally or hundreds of thousands around the world, making governments and companies more responsive and accountable.
“We want to accelerate this dramatic shift – by making it easier to make a difference and by inspiring everyone to discover what’s possible when they stand up and speak out.”
Critics complain that Change.org sells ads and accepts money from large entities to promote their petitions. But the site has strict rules about who can engage: Change.org prohibits bullying, harassment, or intimidation; is against the promotion of hate groups, or persons/entities directly associated with them; and against advocating discrimination. As a result, there’s more progressive click-tivism than conservative action on the site.
And there’s no denying the influence of the free, people-powered, digital Change.org petitions. They’ve helped to bring about an ongoing prosecution in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, raised awareness of “pink slime” burgers in public schools, shut down government-supported “ex-gay” clinics in Ecuador and eliminated an Amateur International Boxing Association rule requiring women boxers to wear skirts in the Olympics.
“If you want to get an idea of what’s brewing in America’s melting pot, get on Change.org,” says petition-enthusiast Peter Warren of Green Bay, who says he signs a petition a day, sometimes more.
Warren says he reads some of the petitions to the end. And many, he adds, he seriously hopes bring about change.
“I just signed a petition to deport the Texans who signed a petition to secede because of Barack Obama’s re-election,” he says. “I’d really like to see that happen, man.”
Warren also signed that “Bully” petition and has joined many other campaigns. Most recently he added his name to the Change.org petition that overloaded the city of Madison’s email system. The petition called for the Madison Police Department to remove Officer Stephen Heimsness from patrol while the Justice Department investigates the fatal shooting of 30-year-old Paul Heenan.
“Only some of my friends will demonstrate at the Capitol,” Warren says, “but just about all of them are using Facebook and have signed a petition for this or that. It’s a good way to express yourself.”