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Does an individual have a right to be heard by state authorities of their grievances? Would such a right be possible to deduce from freedom of expression as defined in the American, Australian and Canadian constitutions?

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    On law.SE one might get even more detailed answers about this. Commented May 1, 2023 at 6:11
  • 3
    Since you haven't accepted either of the obvious answers regarding "right to petition", perhaps you should explain what you think "right to be heard" means to you. Commented May 2, 2023 at 17:12

6 Answers 6

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Yes, this is normally called the "right to petition".

In the USA it is part of the first amendment:

Congress shall make no law [...] abridging [...] the right of the people [...] to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Similar clauses exist in the German Basic Law, the EU, in UK law and the Chinese constitution:

Citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the right to criticize and make suggestions regarding any State organ or functionary.

The right to petition is explicit in the English Bill of Rights:

That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal;

Australia does not have a Bill of Rights (except as derived from English Law), and its constitution does not specify any delimited rights. However the courts have indicated that laws that would prevent the operation of a representative government, as described by the constitution, are subject to judicial review and may be struck down. A law that removed the right to petition would surely fail this test.

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    The right to petition is a right to speak, not a right to be heard. It means the government cannot punish you (even with civil liability!) for making requests for government assistance, not that you have any particular right to have those requests heard. See many Supreme Court cases such as Smith v. Arkansas Highway Employees. (The Supreme Court said in dicta in 2010 that it might be more than that and could include some right to be heard, but no case has established anything else to date and all attempts to do so have failed.) Commented May 2, 2023 at 0:54
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    Plus, even though in the US there is a right to petition the Gov for a redress, etc, there is nothing stopping the various government agencies from enacting policies, procedures, etc to define how those agencies may be petitioned. i.e. you want to yell at the school board, you'd need to look up the when and where to get yourself added to the agenda, perhaps, or when and where you need to appear to be heard during new business, or whatever the board calls. There is usually a period in a normal board meeting where the public can come in and be recognized (heard).
    – CGCampbell
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 14:36
  • I wish there was such a right in India. I couldn't find anything regarding this in the Indian constitution except article 350 which states that "people are entitled to submit a representation for redressal of any grievance in any language of the state or union" is this a right to petition or just a right to petition "where appropriate" in the languages used in the center or the state
    – user45449
    Commented May 4, 2023 at 2:20
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This heavily depends on the circumstances, the jurisdiction, and what exactly you mean by "the right to be heard." This answer will deal with the US, but I suspect that other western jurisdictions will be at least somewhat similar in broad terms.

In the US, in general, you have a right to express your opinion to the government (the "right to petition," as James K says), and the government has the right to completely ignore you. Perhaps the government "heard" you on some level, but they certainly did not listen to you. If you write a letter to some member of Congress about some political issue, 99% of the time, you will get back a form letter which explains the Congressperson's opinion on the matter, and contains little or no acknowledgement of your own opinion.

But there are many situations where things get more complex. If you are accused of a crime or otherwise subject to certain kinds of government sanction, you have a right to be heard as one element of procedural due process. This is a real, substantive right - whatever tribunal is hearing your case must seriously consider the evidence or arguments you present, and present a written explanation of its decision, based on its determinations of fact and law.

Similarly, the Administrative Procedure Act requires government agencies to hold "notice and comment" periods before enacting certain kinds of regulations. During this period, anyone can submit comments into the record, and the agency is formally required to consider those comments. In practice, it is typical for agencies to write some perfunctory fluff acknowledging the comments they disagree with, and then do whatever they were always planning to do anyway, but they cannot totally disregard this requirement, or else a court will have grounds for reversal of the regulation. Agencies governed by the APA sometimes also hold trial-like proceedings, in which they are required to seriously consider any evidence which is properly before them, and cannot simply handwave their way through said evidence.

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    For what it's worth, on a couple of the relatively rare occasions where I have submitted feedback to my local U.S. Representative, I've received a call back from their office. Even when that doesn't happen, though, members of Congress do try to have a good feel for the opinions of the people in their respective electorate, as they typically want to be re-elected and, thus, want to know at least what the people want to hear (whether they act on it is a different question...) Of course, you're right that they have no legal requirement to listen, though. Just an electoral motivation.
    – reirab
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 16:19
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    @reirab If they had a legal obligation to change their legislative actions based on what grievances their constituents aired, I don't think that would be a good thing. It would be too easy a system to high jack by someone with a little money and / or influence.
    – Arthur
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 12:34
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    "[T]he government has the right to completely ignore you." I would rephrase that. The political philosophy of the US system is that the government does not have rights vis-a-vis the people; it has duties and responsibilities. I would say, :The government has no duty to do anything."
    – Wastrel
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 13:53
  • According to the last paragraph it seems that a large enough crowd of people who have nothing better to do could filibuster a disagreeable proposal with a flood of petitions too large for the agency to process.
    – Michael
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 16:53
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    @arthur I might very reasonably decide the jerk senator who ignores me is still preferable to anyone else. In that case, a system which punishes him for ignoring me would actually be a gag on my ability to petition him.
    – fectin
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 22:27
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There are better responses here, but I want to meditate on this point:

The "right to be heard" probably has to be understood in relation to the "right to receive a response".

If you express something to the government, does it count if they heard it but never act on it? It brings us back to the old saying: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Understandably, others have went for "right to petition" as answer, since it creates a legal obligation for the government to respond (assuming the peition passes and that it is binding rather than consultative).

But there are other scenarios that do not fit neatly into this answer:

  • If a referendum passes, but it is only consultative (no binding effect), then the government could theoretically not act on the decision. In this case, has the voice been heard?

  • If a nationwide protest demanding the scrapping of a controversial judicial reform continues for months and the government refuses to honor the demand, has the voice been heard?

  • If a person writes to their representative, and the representative responds to tell them they will not take action to implement their demand, has the voice been heard?

Due to the above consideration, I would argue there is no strong evidence that "right to be heard" exists (if your definiton of being heard is that your demand moves the dial in real terms). However, if a jurisdiction has strong protection for "freedom of expression", then it increases the chance of your voice being heard.

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    What you describe would be a right to be heard and be followed. That does not exist and would be undemocratic at its core. Neither an informal nationwide protest nor a letter to a representative can ever prove they represent a majority view on a matter. (That is in contrast to a referendum, obviously.)
    – ccprog
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 11:23
  • Sound is a pressure wave which is created by a vibrating object. Thus, yes, trees make a sound when they fall, even if there's no one around to hear it.
    – RonJohn
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 16:25
  • 4
    "If a nationwide protest demanding the scrapping of a controversial judicial reform continues for months and the government refuses to honor the demand, has the voice been heard?" Assumes that everyone is protesting to make the change. There are certainly people (maybe lots of people!) who are saying that the reform should remain. They should be heard, too.
    – RonJohn
    Commented May 1, 2023 at 16:32
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In the United States, there is no right to free speech granted by the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution does not grant rights to any individual. It simply limits the government's authority to abridge certain inalienable rights naturally given by our creator. Our Constitution enumerates our natural instincts for fairness, security, self-defense, justice, accountability, and self-governance.

Therefore, the right to be heard doesn't exist either. The right to be heard would imply an entitlement has been granted, and therefore, can be taken away at any time. The right to be heard would further suggest that people and the government have a duty to listen to your grievances, which would be contradictory to the first amendment.

Free speech and free expression are rooted in human nature and are largely connected to the type of land you are on. Since the beginning of time, people have gathered to express their opinions and ideas in public areas such as roads, state-owned public buildings, and public parks. Many examples of this include protests, political rallies, parades, speeches, religious practices, passing out handbills, potlucks, music festivals, and other gatherings. But nobody has a duty to hear your message, attend your religious gathering, or read your newspaper.

“Wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions. Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens.”

Hague V. CIO 307 U.S. 496, 515 (1939)

The basic concept of the right to be heard, which should be called the "desire to be heard", or the "ability to be heard", can be peacefully exercised using components of First Amendment protected activities. The ability to engage in free speech protected activities in public places, inherently demands that individuals and governments have no expectation of privacy in public places and in the course of government activities. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld that anything you can see in public can be recorded and disseminated to the public, while fully protected by the first amendment. It is up to the individual to create privacy, which is also protected under the fourth amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

It is important to note, however, there are many places where first amendment activities are not protected. Some examples include inside someone's private home, in public bathrooms, inside courtrooms, or where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public or private setting. Some states have prohibitions on recording individuals in a private setting without their consent.

The First Amendment, paired with the 14th Amendment, also protects the occupancy and use of public spaces, including publicly (government) owned land and buildings. An individual cannot trespass in public places without committing a crime. Nor can an individual be prohibited from occupying a publicly accessible government building that provides services to members of the public.

“As regulation of the use of the streets for parades and processions is a traditional exercise of control by local government, the question in a particular case is whether that control is exerted so as not to deny or unwarrantedly abridge the right of assembly and the opportunities for the communication of thought and the discussion of public questions immemorially associated with resort to public places.”

Cox v. New Hampshire, 312 U.S. 569 (1941)

Journalists and activists often engage in these First Amendment protected activities to make their voices heard. By approaching politicians in public, temporarily occupying a government building, or organizing a protest to legally gather comments, and content, or sending a message to political and corporate interests, there is no way they won't be heard.

Freedom of speech has been litigated in many different cases. For the purpose of public access to publicly (government) owned property, the U.S. Supreme Court refers to the Public Forum Doctrine to determine where free speech is acceptable. The Public Forum Doctrine describes categories of government-owned property, where the government can place reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on access to government property for free speech purposes.

The three categories include:

  1. Traditional, or quintessential, public forums where the government cannot regulate all speech. Examples: roads, parks, public lands, right of way, and easements.
  2. limited, or designated, public forums where the government is bound by the customs of a traditional public forum but is not required to retain an open charter. Example: publicly accessible buildings, schools, or possibly an event covering a specific topic, where the government can limit speech to that topic.
  3. Nonpublic forums where the government may reasonably impose time, place, and manner restrictions and may reserve the forum for its intended purpose. Examples: courts, congressional hearings, under-oath proceedings, etc.

The Public Forum Doctrine derived from the Cox v. Louisiana case where 23 members of the anti-segregation group Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were accused of criminal conspiracy, disturbing the peace, obstructing public passages, and picketing before a courthouse during a protest against racial segregation.

See the concept of the public forum doctrine

There is an additional reason why this conviction cannot be sustained. The statute at issue in this case, as authoritatively interpreted by the Louisiana Supreme Court, is unconstitutionally vague in its overly broad scope. The statutory crime consists of two elements: (1) congregating with others "with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or under circumstances such that a breach of the peace may be occasioned," and (2) a refusal to move on after having been ordered to do so by a law enforcement officer. While the second part of this offense is narrow and specific, the first element is not. The Louisiana Supreme Court in this case defined the term "breach of the peace" as "to agitate, to arouse from a state of repose, to molest, to interrupt, to hinder, to disquiet." 244 La. at 1105, 156 So. 2d at 455. In Edwards, defendants had been convicted of a common law crime similarly defined >by the South Carolina Supreme Court. Both definitions would allow persons to be punished merely for peacefully expressing unpopular views. Yet, a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions, and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech . . . is . . . protected against censorship or punishment. . . . There is no room under our Constitution for a more restrictive view. For the alternative would lead to standardization of ideas either by legislatures, courts, or dominant political or community groups."

Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536 (1965)

Another notable first amendment case is Jewish War Veterans v. The American Nazi Party, where the supreme court and the American Civil Liberties Union defended the American Nazi Party, advocating the gassing of Jews under the first amendment. The ACLU controversially defended the American Nazi Party and its leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, to speak publicly.

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Certainly, George Lincoln Rockwell, the Congress of Racial Equality, a church, or any other entity couldn't force an individual to "hear" them. Such a demand would suggest that the government has the duty to act on the demands of George Lincoln Rockwell. It could also lead to other human rights abuses like a state-sanctioned religion.

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This is a narrow specific case but I think it is relevant.

When a new building is planned in Switzerland, a "ghost building" must be built in that place first and stay for at least a month. The "ghost building" consists of poles clearly outlining the shape of the new building, or any major addition to existing building. For tall buildings, tethered balloons and even helicopters have been employed to hover at a specified height. Underground structures are marked with wooden stakes at their corners. This rule has been discussed in The Guardian for United Kingdom also.

enter image description here

The rationale behind this requirement is to help the general public in understanding what is being built so they could oppose if the new building would have the visual impact that does not look acceptable for them. Hence the community has the right to say "no" before the construction begins. It would be much more problematic to oppose the existence of the building that is already standing and should be demolished at high cost. The right to oppose requires the right to know what is being built starting from.

Just architectural drawings may be difficult to obtain and complex to understand.

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Italian Constitution has a specific article that has a broader application (emphasis mine):

Art. 24.

Tutti possono agire in giudizio per la tutela dei propri diritti e interessi legittimi. La difesa e` diritto inviolabile in ogni stato e grado del procedimento.

Sono assicurati ai non abbienti, con appositi istituti, i mezzi per agire e difendersi davanti ad ogni giurisdizione.

La legge determina le condizioni e i modi per la riparazione degli errori giudiziari.

My approximate (IANAL) translation:

Everyone can act before a judge to defend their rights and legitimate interests. The defense is an inviolable right in every state and stage of the [judicial] proceeding.

Poor people are granted, with dedicated institutions, the means to act and defend themselves before any jurisdiction.

The law determines the conditions and the ways for the reparation of judicial errors.

So, although this article doesn't directly address the right to be heard directly in 1st person from any authority, it grants the right to go the judicial way to make oneself be heard.

Of course the article grants this fundamental right when ones rights or legitimate interests are at stake, it doesn't mean that anyone has the right to voice their opinion directly to the authorities. However, since any grievance not heard by the relevant authority could hide a violation of someone's right or legitimate interest, many authorities are subjected to laws that in some form or another, allow the citizens to be heard.

In fact, there's a further article (n.28) that strongly compels public servants to "behave" without ignoring:

I funzionari e i dipendenti dello Stato e degli enti pubblici sono direttamente responsabili, secondo le leggi penali, civili e amministrative, degli atti compiuti in violazione di diritti.

In tali casi la responsabilita` civile si estende allo Stato e agli enti pubblici.

Translation:

State officers and employees and employees of public entities are directly responsible, according to criminal, civil and administrative laws, for their actions accomplished in violation of [a citizen's] rights.

In those cases civil responsibility extends to the State and to the public entities.

And there are more glimpses of these same principles interspersed in other articles of our constitution. In summary, an Italian citizen has an intrinsic "right to be heard" from the authorities.

However, the sad reality is that the procedure to make your voice heard or the fact that once you have been heard you are taken seriously or into consideration is another matter. It widely depends on the particular institution you are dealing with and also on the specific regional situation.

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