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Petition Definition and Meaning

The interesting meaning and history of petitions

Broadly, a petition is a request to change something, most commonly made to a government official or public entity,  but also to a variety of other targets (see below). Commonly today, a petition is a document addressed to some official and signed by numerous individuals. A petition may be oral rather than written, or even transmitted via the Internet in the form of a chain email letter or an Internet petition hosted at a dedicated website such as GoPetition.

The meaning of "petition" both etymologically and socially is quite broad. The Origin of the English word is as follows: 1300–50; ME peticioun (< MF peticion) < L petītiōn- (s. of petītiō) a seeking out, equiv. to petīt(us) (ptp. of petere to seek) + -iōn- -ion. The Latin derivative is based on the notion of "seeking". This concept, in turn, is related to the Hebrew notion of petitioning (seeking) God in prayer. The notion of prayer, while also extending to praise and other affirmations of God, also incorporates a central notion of seeking change (an answer to prayer; an answer to specific requests to God). 

And so from the core psycho-spiritual notion of seeking change with God's help, we have a variety of "secular" implications, including seeking change from authorities in power, whether governmental or otherwise. 

In this "secular" sense, a petition is a request to an authority, most commonly a government official or public entity. However, in modern usage, petitions are frequently addressed to a wide variety of targets. Example targets include, political parties, presidents, prime ministers, senators, ambassadors, campaigners, educational institutions, sports organizations, media organizations, entertainment producers, TV stations, film and TV producers, studios, neighborhood authorities or home owner associations, just to name a few.

Historical perspectives of petitions

In pre-modern Imperial China petitions were always sent to an Office of Transmission (Tongzheng si or 通政司) where court secretaries would read petitions aloud to the emperor. Petitions could be sent by anybody, from a scholar-official to a common farmer, although the petitions were more likely read to the emperor if they were persuasive enough to impeach questionable and corrupt local officials from office. When petitions arrived to the throne, multiple copies were made of the original and stored with the Office of Supervising Secretaries before the original written petition was sent to the emperor. 

The British experience shares common ground with the Chinese. Dating back to the reign of King Edward I, in thirteenth century England, the presentation of a petition acted as a trigger for the creation of laws. Indeed, Petitions were a common form of protest and request to the British House of Commons in the 18th and 19th centuries. The largest being the petition of the Chartists. 

The formation of the United States of America included the notion of protecting the right to petition. The Petition Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of the people "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The right to petition has been held to include the right to file lawsuits against the government. 

Petitions are also commonly used in the U.S. to qualify candidates for public office to appear on a ballot. While anyone can be a write-in candidate, a candidate desiring that his or her name appear on printed ballots and other official election materials must gather a certain number of valid signatures from registered voters. In jurisdictions whose laws allow for ballot initiatives, the gathering of a sufficient number of voter signatures qualifies a proposed initiative to be placed on the ballot. The 2003 California recall election, which culminated in the recall of Governor Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegge, began when U.S. Representative Darrell Issa employed paid signature gatherers who obtained millions of signatures at a cost to Issa of millions of dollars. Once the requisite number of signatures was obtained on the recall petition, other petitions were circulated by would-be candidates who wanted to appear on the ballot as possible replacements for Davis. After that step, a vote on the recall was scheduled. 

The modern phenomenon of Internet petitions has extended the scope of the popular form to general authorities. In February 2007, an online petition against road pricing on the UK Prime Minister's own website attracted over 1.8 million e-signatures, from a population of 60 million people. The nature of social networking and Internet technologies has made the signature collection process more efficient. Politicians have mixed feelings about this as the implication of greater accountability disturbs many. In Australia, for example, Liberal backbencher Wilson Tuckey said he was opposed to the move towards "e-democracy". He contends that "paper" petitions are more serious than e-petitions. Tuckey and other politicians may have other reasons for not welcoming electronic campaigns. It could be argued that many politicians just don't want to be inundated with voter campaigns and political responsibility and/or transparency. 

Biblical perspectives on the notion of "Petition"

The word "petition" is used in English Versions of the Bible only as a noun, usually as representing the Hebrew Heb: she'elah (Ps 20:5, Heb: mish'alah), from the common verb Heb: sha'al, "to ask." The noun, consequently, has little technical meaning, and may be used indifferently in the active (Est 7:2) or passive (1 Sam 1:27) sense, or for a petition addressed to either God (1 Sam 1:17) or man (1 Ki 2:16), while in Jdg 8:24; Job 6:8; Ps 106:15, it is rendered simply "request." Otherwise "petition" represents the Aramaic Heb: ba`u (Dan 6:7,13), the Greek Grk: aitema (1 Jn 5:15), and Grk: deesis (1 Macc 7:37, the Revised Version (British and American) "supplication"), and the Latin oratio (2 Esdras 8:24).

Legal status of petitions

The legal status of a petition will depend on its target. The legality of written petitions to various houses of parliament, whether to representatives, senate or local council chambers, will depend on the specific rules of jurisdiction (which vary broadly in Western democracies). Of course, many petitions are not written to parliaments or governments and therefore do not have to comply with any government regulations or standing orders. In this latter context, a petition has moral and social force rather than legal force. The legality of Internet petitions, even if addressed to government, is a more complex question.

The legal status of epetitions is in a state of flux. Some jurisdictions accept them and some don't. Scotland, Queensland (Australia), and Number 10 (UK) all accept internet petitions. While internet petitions in other jurisdictions may have no legal effect, the signatures of thousands or millions of people represent a moral force which has initiated change in many different circumstances. Non-governmental organizations such as Amnesty International often use petitions in an attempt to exert moral authority in support of various causes. At GoPetition, many Internet campaigners have reported success stories

The term "petition" also has a specific "legal" meaning in the legal profession as a request, directed to a court or administrative tribunal, seeking some sort of relief such as a court order. A petition can be the title of a legal pleading that initiates a case to be heard before a court. The initial pleading in a civil lawsuit that seeks only money (damages) might be titled (in most U.S. courts) a complaint; an initial pleading in a lawsuit seeking non-monetary or "equitable" relief such as a request for a writ of mandamus or habeas corpus, or for custody of a child or for probate of a will, would instead be termed a petition. 

As can be seen from the above notes, the term "petition" can be used quite broadly and has had a number of different social uses over time. For more information about Internet petitions, please refer to the links below.

How to start an Internet petition

There are four key ingredients to consider when starting a successful petition. 

(1) Identify your petition's target which could range from an individual to a large corporate organization, government, NGO or even an international entity such as the UN. 
(2) Properly research your target's protocols so that your petition will be reviewed. 
(3) You should conduct proper and thorough research into your petition's subject matter so that your call to action (or refrain) is both believable and feasible. 
(4) Your petition must pass a communication test: its language should be clear, concise and believable.

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