Amendment I

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

Freedom of Speech

There are a few limits on speech in this country-but very few-because free speech is, arguably, the right most essential to democratic government.

Without free speech and its other First Amendment cousins-freedom of the press, of assembly and of petition (rights collectively referred to as "freedom of expression")-citizens couldn't say what they believe, couldn't debate the actions of government at home and abroad, and couldn't analyze the wisdom and weaknesses of their elected leaders. Free speech is vital to peaceful social change-and it's the first right to go when tyrants take over.

Freedom of speech under the First Amendment is not limited to the spoken word. It may also include speech combined with action (picketing and demonstrations, for instance) and symbolic speech, such as flag-burning. It also includes its reverse: the freedom not to speak. In other words, no one can force you to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner."

But freedom of speech does have limits. No one has the right to give away military secrets or to scream in the library or to shout over a bullhorn in the middle of the night. We're not free to lie under oath or to spout obscenities (although the definition of an obscenity may change, depending on where it's uttered). The misuse of free speech to "create a clear and present danger," as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, may be punished by the government.

 

Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion means we're free from government-imposed religion and that we can believe whatever we want to believe.

The First Amendment's unequivocal statement of religious independence reflects a conviction most colonists felt: Their religious beliefs were no business of the government's.

How does this figure into public-school prayer? The Supreme Court's logic is this: An employee of a public school, funded by tax dollars and governed by public officials, is a representative of the government. If that public-school employee conducts school religious activities, it's as if the government were sponsoring those activities. And while prayers to God or Jehovah or Allah might not offend some students and parents whose beliefs are similar, such prayers may be an affront to others who believe differently.

On the other hand, government cannot deny students who want to form a Bible club equal access to school facilities used by other clubs-as long as the students, not teachers or other school officials, are organizing and running the club. Nor can government insist that citizens adhere to a certain faith in order to run for office.

Americans are free to believe as we choose. Our freedom to act is not absolute, however, because the law says the individual's right to act may be restricted if the government has a "compelling interest" in doing so. In other words, you're not free to burn the homes of those who disagree with your faith, because government has a compelling interest in preventing arson and anarchy.

 

Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the press was specifically mentioned in the First Amendment because James Madison and other supporters of the Bill of Rights felt it was necessary to the health of a democratic society. In fact, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "If it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without a free press or a free press without a government, I would prefer the latter." It wasn't that he particularly liked newspapers-a number of them had printed nasty things about him. But he believed a free press can counter government's tendency to misuse power and to restrict the free flow of information.

At the time the First Amendment was written, the printing press was the only means of mass communication. Now, freedom of the press is understood to include radio, television, and telecommunications, too-although these are regulated by government more than the print medium.

There are some controls on the American press, but very few. Generally, the courts have upheld the right of the media to operate without prior restraint-that is, without government censorship prior to publication. Of course, once something is printed or broadcast, it can be challenged under libel laws. (Libel refers to written or broadcast untruths that damage a person's reputation.) Such laws encourage the media to honor self-imposed limits for fear of expensive lawsuits-although public officials and public figures have a harder time proving they've been libeled than private citizens do.

 

Freedom of Assembly

You can write your senator, or circulate a petition or march on Washington. You can form an organization of people who believe as you do and send a lobbyist to your state capital to persuade legislators of your point of view. You can carry a picket sign on the sidewalk outside the courthouse next time your county commissioners meet.

As long as yours is a peaceable meeting on public property-a street, sidewalk or a park-and as long as you work with government to set the time, place and manner of your gathering so that disruption is kept to a minimum, your freedom to assemble is nearly absolute. And so is your freedom to petition the government to right the wrongs you see in society.

Before the Revolution, the colonists gathered themselves into colonial assemblies and used the right of petition as a way to communicate with the British crown. In fact, the government's lack of response was one element prompting the Declaration of Independence-itself a petition.

We Americans have made effective use of the protest march to change the course of history. The women's suffrage marches in the '20s; the civil rights marches of the '50s and '60s; the peace marches protesting the Vietnam War; the marches on Washington to support or protest abortion rights: these massive assemblies have dramatized the great issues of our time and brought about political change.

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