The White House's "We the People" website just got its most popular petition to date: a request to officially designate the Westboro Baptist church as a hate group. The petition was started on Dec. 14, the same day a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., left 27 people dead, 20 of them children, and the day the fringe church announced it would picket the victims' funerals.
The petition now has more than 260,000 signatures, far and above the 25,000 signature needed for official response.
But the White House has not yet responded to the Westboro petition—or to any of the rather uncommon requests that have flooded the site over the last few months (to secede from the Union, to make American Sign Language an official language or to nationalize Twinkies).
The White House immediately responded, however, to a petition calling to reduce gun violence after the Newtown shooting, an issue President Barack Obama has said he's keen to address. In a sit-down video response, Obama carefully explained the ways in which he'd work to make children's schools more safe.
The White House did not respond to request for comment from Whispers about why it has responded to some petitions far more quickly than others.
J.H. Snider, a fellow at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, predicted in The Huffington Post in October 2011 that "We The People" would "probably only have a short life ... because the interests of the public and elected officials differ."
While a large segment of people want to talk about mandated vacation time in workplaces, for example, the White House would rather respond to a petition on immigration reform. While some people want to talk about doing a recount of the election, the White House would rather talk about an "open and innovative Internet."
Because of this disconnect, open government blog Gov 2.0 wrote in September 2011 that it had "a hard time seeing 'We the People' as anything more than gov 2.0 theater."
"We the People" faced the most criticism after the Obama's drug czar Gil Kerlikowske responded to a petition to legalize marijuana. The cannabis community was outraged at the choice of Kerlikowske as a respondent, and NORML, the marijuana legalization group that submitted the petition, said it believed Kerlikowske didn't answer the same question it had asked.
But for whatever its perceived faults, the White House appears to be taking "We the People" seriously, having issued responses to 87 petitions thus far, and even explaining why it couldn't respond to some petitions for legal or other reasons. And advocates of transparency in government say they're glad the site exists.
"Democracy is a mess, and the petition website reflects that mess," Snider wrote in The Huffington Post. "But ... if to suppress the crazies we suppress the mobilized energy and vital speech necessary for a healthy democracy, that would be a much greater tragedy."