John Milton is one of my favorite writers. In his influential defense of freedom of speech, Areopagitica, he linked liberty to the right to complain about the government:
But when complaints are freely heard, deeply consider’d and speedily reform’d, then is the utmost bound of civill liberty attain’d, that wise men looke for.
(original spelling) Milton’s Areopagitica argued against prior restraints on the press. His ideas of freedom of speech and the right to redress grievances were eventually embodied in the First Amendment to U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The truth is that no one likes to receive complaints and that includes government agencies. Why then should anyone expect a state agency to lay out an electronic welcome mat for complaints on its own performance? Ordinarily, I wouldn’t harbor any such expectation. In California, however, the legislature has actually mandated that state agencies provide on the Internet “a plain-language form through which individuals can register complaints or comments relating to the performance of that agency”. Cal. Govt. Code § 8331(a).
Thus, I thought that I would check a few agency websites to see whether they were in compliance. Some agencies, such as the erstwhile Department of Financial Institutions, provide a form as required by law. You can find the DFI’s form by clicking on the “Resources and Online Tools” tab, then “Consumer Forms” and finally “Citizen Complaint From”. I couldn’t locate the form on the websites of a number of other state agencies, including the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS).
Note that the statute mandates that agencies provide a form for complaints about the performance of the agency, not the people or firms that an agency may regulate. For example, the Department of Corporations provides this form for complaints about the persons and transactions that are within its jurisdiction.
John Milton wrote Areopagitica in 1644 in the middle of England’s first civil war. Milton borrowed the title from Isocrates’ fourth century BCE oration, Ἀρεοπαγιτikόs (Areopagiticus). The unusual name refers to a hill near the entrance of the Acropolis in Athens. This is where the judges in ancient Athens sat and later where the Apostle Paul once preached (Acts 17: 18-34).