The meaning of "petition" both etymologically and socially is quite broad and would take more than a blog post to do justice to the term. Here, however, I wish to touch on the broad concepts and usages of the word.
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. Commonly, a petition is a document addressed to any official & signed by numerous individuals. A petition may be oral rather than written, and, in recent history, may be transmitted via the Internet.
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, but I suspect that he and many other politicians just don't want to be inundated with voter campaigns.
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 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. In future blogs I will expand on some of these in more detail.