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First Amendment Research Information

Court Cases - Right to Petition

Thornhill v. Alabama (1940)
The Supreme Court held that orderly union picketing that informs the public of the issues is protected by the constitutional freedom of speech and of the press and the right of petition and peaceable assembly and cannot be prosecuted under state loitering and picketing laws.

United States v. Harriss (1954)
The Supreme Court upheld the authority of Congress to require certain lobbyists to register.

Edwards v. South Carolina (1963)
In an 8-to-1 decision the high court overturned the breach of the peace convictions of 180 black students who had peacefully marched to the state capitol to protest discrimination. The police stopped the demonstration and arrested the students because they were afraid that the 200-300 who gathered to watch the demonstration might cause a riot. The court held the state law unconstitutionally overbroad because it penalized the exercise of free speech, peaceable assembly, and the right of petition for a redress of grievances. A disorderly crowd, or the fear of one, cannot be used to stop a peaceful demonstration or cancel the right of peaceable assembly.

Brown v. Louisiana (1966)
The Supreme Court reversed the convictions of five black individuals who participated in an orderly and peaceful sit-in at a local branch library to protest segregation at the library. The court protected their right of petition and freedom of assembly.

Brown v. Glines (1980)
The high court upheld the authority of military base commanders to require approval before military personnel can send a petition to members of Congress.

United States v. Grace (1983)
Congress tried to isolate the U.S. Supreme Court from demonstations or lobbying on the court steps. But the high court held that the acts of distributing leaflets and carrying picket signs on the public sidewalk around the building were protected by the First Amendment.

McDonald v. Smith (1985)
The Supreme Court unanimously held that statements made in a petition to the government are not entitled to greater consitutional protection than other First Amendment expressions. In letters written to President Reagan concerning someone being considered for U.S. attorney, the writer made false and derogatory statements. The letter writer was sued for libel. The writer pleaded that the Petition Clause of the First Amendment gave him immunity from prosecution. Wrong, said the court.

Walters v. National Association of Radiation Survivors (1985)
The U.S. Supreme Court held that a $10 limit on what a veteran can pay an attorney for representing him in pursuing claims with the Veterans Administration did not abridge the veteran's right to effectively petition the government.