Montana Youth Climate Advocates and the Power of Petition

Youth plaintiffs in the climate change lawsuit, Held vs. Montana, pose outside the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse in Helena, Montana.

By Freedom Forum

You have to be 18 years old to vote, but there's no age limit on the First Amendment freedom to petition. Sixteen young people in Montana made national news in 2020 by challenging their state on laws that favored the fossil fuel industry and hurt the environment; all that before they graduated from high school.

The students – age 2 to 16 when they started their campaign – based their efforts on Montana's constitution, which guarantees a clean and healthful environment.

Their use of First Amendment freedoms to file a groundbreaking lawsuit is why Freedom Forum is honoring them with a 2024 Free Expression Award. The Free Expression Awards is an annual event that honors the achievements of First Amendment heroes for their courageous acts of and contributions to free expression. Freedom Forum is a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) foundation dedicated to fostering First Amendment freedoms for all.

Past Free Expression Award honorees include people who advance First Amendment freedoms and remind us of the important roles that petition and protest play in our democracy, including Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson and Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

The Montana youth are hikers and hunters, anglers and skiers, the children of farmers and ranchers. All share a passion to protect their right to a safe climate. They assembled at rallies, talked to the press and shared their stories in court.

International media reported and people around the globe watched as the young Montanans testified how climate change has impacted their health, families, food production, ancestral and family traditions, air, land and rivers.

In 2023, represented by Our Children’s Trust, McGarvey Law and the Western Environmental Law Center, they won the first-ever constitutional climate change lawsuit tried in the United States. In Held v. Montana, the judge ruled that the “plaintiffs have proven that as children and youth, they are disproportionately harmed by fossil fuel pollution and climate impacts.”

“As youth, we are exposed to a lot of knowledge about climate change. We can’t keep passing it on to the next generation when we’re being told about all the impacts that are already happening,” – Lead plaintiff Rikki Held in the Montana Free Press

Claire Vlases, one of the plaintiffs, was adamant about participating in the lawsuit. “I found my identity through the Montana landscape because I grew up on a small farm … and so I really have always felt connected to the land,” Vlases says.

“There’s a river that flows through my yard and throughout the season we could see it ebb and flow. And those changes were really obvious year by year as well as the snowpack changing. And so, I started realizing climate change was happening to me.” – Montana youth climate advocate Claire Vlases

Participating in the lawsuit taught Vlases and her fellow Montana youth climate advocates and plaintiffs a valuable lesson about civic participation.

“What I knew about the First Amendment really only was what I learned about in my classes in my government class, which was, oh, it's the right to free speech and expression and the right to assembly,” she said. “But I think that definition has really changed and expanded as I've continued on my activism journey.”

That journey has led from a farm in Montana to Washington, D.C., where Vlases and Grace Gibson-Snyder will represent the 16 youth who used their First Amendment right to petition the government. In so doing, they reminded everyone that core freedoms have no age limit.

Religion in the Workplace: What You Should Know

We answer frequently asked questions about religion in the workplace.
Read More

What Is Book Banning and Is It Unconstitutional? The Complete Guide

Everything to know about book bans and the First Amendment.
Read More

Related Content

Learn what Americans are saying about Freedom of Religion.