The Rest of the World Is Invoking the 1st Amendment in White House Petitions

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The Rest of the World Is Invoking the 1st Amendment in White House Petitions
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The Rest of the World Is Invoking the 1st Amendment in White House Petitions

Over the weekend, two new "We the People" petitions met the White House's 100,000-signatory standard for a formal response. Unlike most previous petitions, though, the majority of the people doing the signing are more than likely not American citizens.

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Abe Sauer, an American journalist who lives in China, spotted a White House petition trending on Sina Weibo, that country's version of Twitter, earlier today.

So much for censorship. White House (白宫) been Weibo top topic all day re: petition to "deport Sun Wei) re: Tsinghua murder. 1/2

— Abe Sauer (@abesauer) May 6, 2013

At right is a Google-translated list of the top trends of the 368-million-user service; the top response, "Sun Shi Yan," refers to the petition. The request centers on a 1994 incident in which a student at a university in China, Zhu Ling, was repeatedly poisoned with thallium. Offbeat China has an overview of the case, explaining that suspect Sun Wei, who at the time was Zhu's roommate, is rumored that to live in the United States. (The Google translation below and the petition itself list her name as "Jasmine Sun.")

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Users discuss the petition on Weibo. A small screenshot of the petition site appears beneath the comments.

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The petition reads, in part:

Jasmine Sun was investigated by police as suspect in 1997. But resources show that the case was mystically closed due to her family's powerful political connections. Resources also show that she changed her name and entered USA by marriage fraud.

To protect the safety of our citizens, we petite that the government investigate and deport her.

It has been signed by over 112,000 people since Friday, passing the 100,000-signature threshold at which the White House promises a response.

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Nor is it the only recent petition from outside the United States to reach that level. On Saturday, a user presumably from Malaysia created a petition that asks the United States government to "provide solidarity supports and necessary assistances" to address alleged voter fraud during that country's recent election. As seen in a tool that tracks recent clicks on government-shortened URLs the petition (marked below with a pink pin) is getting a lot of attention in that country.

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It, too, has passed the 100,000-signature mark.

The petition process is set up to be openly accessible. When you create an account, you are asked to provide your ZIP code, but that field is optional. The openness of that access means that the government has a limited ability to track the origination of a signer.

There are almost certainly instances in the past in which the majority of signatories to a petition came from outside the country. Earlier this year, the White House responded (somewhat tersely) to a petition calling for a proclamation on the topic of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the 1990s. Several have dealt with human rights issues in Sri Lanka. While it's not clear the percentage of signers for these petitions who are not United States citizens — and, of course, many people living overseas are still citizens of the country — it seems apparent that the definition of people in "We the People" has been broadened somewhat.

None of these responses likely took the White House a lot of time to craft; many of those currently under consideration or which have received responses are on topics for which the United States has an easily referenced existing policy. What's most interesting is that citizens of other countries (including China) are exercising the First Amendment right to petition the government — despite the fact that this government doesn't govern them.

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