From freedom of speech, and freedom of religion, to the freedom of the press, as well as the right to peaceful protest and petition the government, are all the powers of an individual residing in the United States that are strictly safeguarded by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
This amendment, which is part of the Bill of Rights, was put into action in the year 1791 with the aim to ensure that all civil liberties are protected by written law in the United States.
Over the years, there has been an ongoing debate on the analyses and the interpretation regarding the meaning of the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court has handled significant cases that concern citizens’ rights to protest the participation of the United States in various fields such as foreign conflicts, the act of burning the flag, and the release of classified government materials. These cases have played a vital role in shaping and defining the extent of the First Amendment’s protections.
1. The Bill of Rights
To understand the concept of the First Amendment, it deems essential to emphasize the fact of the Bill of Rights.
In the summer of 1787, a group of politicians, which included notable figures such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, assembled in Philadelphia to compose a fresh U.S. Constitution.
Nevertheless, the Antifederalists, headed by Patrick Henry, who was of the position of the inaugural governor of Virginia, were against the approval of the Constitution as aforementioned.
They were of the view that the new document conferred excessive authority to the federal government, which in turn led to the undermining of the power of the states.
Adding onto the aforesaid, they also put forth that the Constitution did not have adequate safeguards in place to protect the individual rights of citizens of the United States.
Running along the idea as aforesaid, the discussion about ratifying the Constitution in multiple states was solely focused on the need for a Bill of Rights to be brought into existence so as to the fact that it would guarantee fundamental civil liberties under the law of the United States.
To avoid the risk of the Constitution being rejected, Federalist politicians, who were in rooting for the initiation of the Constitution, made a pledge to the Antifederalists to create a Bill of Rights as a concession for the same.
Enhancing further on this idea, it makes it essential to understand that the majority of the Bill of Rights was drafted by James Madison, who served as a representative from the state of Virginia post where he became the fourth President of the United States.
James Madison created the Bill of Rights during the first session of the United States Congress, known as the 1st Congress, which was held from 1789 to 1791. This period not only is renowned for the aforementioned but also marked the first two years of George Washington’s presidency.
Adding on the aforesaid, the initial ten amendments to the United States Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, as was curated, were presented to Congress in 1789 post which was brought into force on December 15, 1791.
1.1 The Definition of the First Amendment
“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.”
To elaborate on the idea of the first amendment of the Bill of Rights prevailing in the United States Constitution, in the said document of law, the First Amendment safeguards the freedom of religion and expression from government intervention.
It not only forbids the creation of any laws that endorse a national religion, or obstruct the free practice of religion, but also takes down the restrictions placed on the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, obstruction of the right to assemble peacefully, as well as the prevention applied on citizens from seeking remedies from the government for grievances.
Complementing the above-stated idea is the fact that the First Amendment was incorporated into the Bill of Rights in 1791, and the Supreme Court is made responsible for interpreting the scope of the rights it brings to play for the citizens.
Although it is specifically addressed to Congress, the Court has interpreted the First Amendment as applying it to the entire federal government.
Adding on further, the Court has interpreted the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as providing protection against state government interference with the rights safeguarded by the First Amendment.
With all the ongoing discussions, it is essential to understand that although the First Amendment safeguards the freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition, the other amendments in the Bill of Rights address additional American values, traditions and core beliefs.
Taking, as an illustration, the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights protects the right to bear arms, as well as the Sixth Amendment, which is known to safeguard the right to a trial by jury.
1.2 History of the First Amendment
Diving deeper into taking in the understanding of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, focusing on how the aforesaid was brought into existence plays a huge role.
During the founding of the United States, the Founders believed that an open and free exchange of ideas was vital to the survival of representative democracy.
As Benjamin Franklin famously declared, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.“
To safeguard the aforementioned principle, the Founders enshrined the freedoms of speech and the press in the First Amendment. U.S. Supreme Court followed by Justice Hugo Black later assenting to the wisdom of this decision, by putting ahead that, “The Framers knew that free speech is the friend of change and revolution. But they also knew that it is always the deadliest enemy of tyranny.”
On the same lines as the aforementioned idea, the First Amendment has now become an emblem of the right of an individual, no matter how small that a “single minority of one” they may be, to voice opinions that may diverge from those of the mainstream majority in the domains of speech, religion, and expression, is the entire essence of the aforesaid amendment.
As a federal judge noted, history has revealed that “pleasing speech is not the kind that needs protection.” The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the First Amendment as a bastion for safeguarding the “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” discourse of contentious and frequently unpopular topics in public settings.
Understanding the aspects of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is the fact that it also safeguards the freedom of religious expression. This is achieved by ensuring that every individual has the right to express any religious belief or none at all, while simultaneously prohibiting the government from favouring or inclining towards any religion over another.
The government has prohibited mandating how an individual should act or what such a person indulges in, or believe, particularly with regard to religion.
1.3 Freedom of Speech / Freedom of the Press
Having the concept of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights placed into clarity, it deems essential to now emphasize the powers the aforementioned eludes.
The most fundamental aspect of freedom of expression is the right to freedom of speech, which may be exercised directly through words or symbolically through actions.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights positions the aforesaid into recognition that the freedom of speech is a human right. This right allows individuals to express themselves without any kind of interference or regulation initiated by the federal government.
The U.S. Supreme Court mandates that the government provide substantial justification for any attempt to regulate the content of free speech. Generally, a person cannot be held legally liable, whether criminally or civilly, for any truthful opinions voiced by them or statements about a person or topic.
Highlighting the idea above stated further when it comes to content-neutral legislation, a less strict and firm test is applied. The U.S. Supreme Court has also acknowledged that the government may restrict certain forms of speech that may incite violence or result in a breach of the peace.
Categories of speech that are less protected or unprotected altogether, that is from the advocacy of illegal actions, the use of fighting words, commercial speech, to an obscenity are all encompassed under the same.
The right to free speech also takes over other means of conveying a message. The level of protection that speech receives is also contingent on the forum where it occurs in.
Elaborating ahead on the same lines, it is a deems as a common misconception that the right to freedom of the press, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, is distinct from the right to freedom of speech.
However, the right to freedom of the press is essentially the right to freely express oneself through publication and dissemination.
It is an integral component of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression and does not grant special privileges or rights to members of the media which are as such not available to the general public.
1.4 Freedom of Religion
Another concept of the First Amendment is the idea of Freedom of religion which serves to be of paramount essence. There are two provisions related to religion in the aforesaid amendment, of which the first is the Establishment Clause and the second is the Free Exercise Clause.
The Establishment Clause bars the government from creating or endorsing a particular religion. The exact meaning of “establishment” is not well-defined, but in the past, it has been interpreted as preventing state-sponsored churches like the Church of England.
Adding on further, the definition of an “establishment of religion” in modern times is frequently determined by the three-part assessment introduced by the U.S. Supreme Court post the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman in the year 1971.
According to the “Lemon” test, government aid to religion is permissible only if the help extended is primarily secular in nature, does not advance or hinder any kind of religion, and prohibits leading to excessive involvement between the government and any religious organizations.
The second aspect of the provision focuses on the Free Exercise Clause. The aforementioned safeguards individuals’ right to freely practice their religion unless such practices serve to be in conflict with a “compelling” governmental interest or “public morals”.
Taking as an illustration, in the case of Prince v. Massachusetts of the year 1944, the Supreme Court determined that a state may mandate the inoculation of children, even if it goes against the parents’ religious beliefs, as well as if it is necessary to protect public health and safety.
Complementing the aforesaid idea, it is important to highlight the fact that on certain occasions, conflicts may arise between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.
Hence in such cases, the federal courts, with the Supreme Court as the final decision-maker, work towards resolving these conflicts.
1.5 Right to Assemble / Right to Petition
The third aspect that lies within the ambit of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution is the right to assemble as well as the right to petition.
Individuals in the United States, have the right to assemble peacefully and lawfully for any purpose that deems it necessary to do so. This right also includes the freedom to associate and believe.
The Supreme Court has explicitly acknowledged that the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments contain an implied right to freedom of association and belief. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well recognizes the right to assemble as a human right in Article 20.
However, this implicit right only extends to the association for First Amendment purposes and does not cover social association. The government may prevent individuals from knowingly joining groups that endorse and participate in illegal activities.
Focusing ahead, in addition to protecting the freedom to associate, this right also prevents the government from mandating registration or the disclosure of a group’s members, or from withholding government benefits based on an individual’s past or present membership in a specific organization.
However, the Supreme Court of the United States has recognized certain exceptions to this rule, allowing for full disclosure and registration when the government’s interests outweigh the interference with First Amendment rights.
Generally, the government can neither compel individuals to express themselves, hold particular beliefs, nor have them join specific groups or associations.
Diving deeper into the aforesaid concept, the right to petition the government for a redressal of grievances ensures that individuals have the right to request governmental action, such as legal remedies, in response to the perceived wrongs faced by the individual.
This right operates in tandem with the right to assemble, as it allows individuals to come together and seek change from the government.
2. Landmark Cases of the First Amendment
Stated below are the paramount landmark judgements with respect to the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
2.1 Free Speech & Freedom of the Press:
2.1.1 Schenck v. United States, 1919:
In the aforementioned case, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the conviction of Charles Schenck, a Socialist Party activist, for distributing pamphlets that encouraged young men to resist the draft during World War I.
This said decision established the boundaries of free speech by introducing the “clear and present danger” standard, which outlines when the government may place a certain kind of restriction on the action of free speech.
The Court viewed the draft resistance as a threat to national security, justifying the limitation of free speech in this case.
2.1.2 New York Times Co. v. United States, 1971:
This landmark Supreme Court case is commonly known as the Pentagon Papers case. It established that The New York Times and The Washington Post newspapers had the right to publish the contents of the Pentagon Papers without the fear of government censorship.
The Pentagon Papers were a classified study conducted by the Department of Défense that analysed the U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
When portions of the papers were published, they revealed that several presidential administrations, including those of Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, had misled the public about the extent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
The Supreme Court’s decision, in this case, was a significant victory for press freedom and the First Amendment.
2.1.3 Texas v. Johnson, 1990:
Gregory Lee Johnson, a youth communist, burned a flag during the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas to protest the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
The state of Texas charged Johnson with flag desecration, but the Supreme Court later reversed the Texas court’s decision, ruling that Johnson’s actions were protected under the First Amendment’s right to free speech.
This landmark case of Texas v. Johnson, invalidated statutes in Texas and 47 other states that prohibited flag-burning, as the Court found that such laws were unconstitutional as they placed restrictions on free speech.
2.2 Freedom of Religion:
2.2.1 Reynolds v. United States (1878):
The Supreme Court, in this case, upheld a federal law banning polygamy and tested the limits of religious liberty in the United States. The case involved George Reynolds, a Mormon who had multiple wives and was charged with bigamy.
Reynolds argued that his religious beliefs justified his practice of polygamy and that the government’s ban on polygamy violated his right to religious freedom. However, the Supreme Court rejected Reynolds’ argument, ruling that the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom did not extend to actions that were illegal, such as polygamy.
The Court held that the government had the right to regulate such actions, even if they were motivated by religious beliefs.
This case established the principle that the government can regulate actions that are deemed harmful, even if they are motivated by religious beliefs.
2.2.2 Braunfeld v. Brown (1961):
The Supreme Court case that upheld a Pennsylvania law requiring stores to close on Sundays, despite objections from Orthodox Jews, is Braunfeld v. Brown.
The case involved a group of Orthodox Jewish store owners who challenged the Sunday closing law on the grounds that it violated their religious freedom by forcing them to close their stores on both Saturdays that is the Jewish Sabbath and Sundays.
However, the Court upheld the law, ruling that it did not infringe upon the free exercise of religion since it was a neutral law of general applicability that did not specifically target religious practices.
The Court held that the government could regulate the economic activity for the public good and that the burden placed on the Jewish store owners was incidental to the law’s secular purpose.
The case established the principle that laws of general applicability that have an incidental effect on religious practices are generally constitutional.
2.2.3 Sherbert v. Verner (1963):
The Supreme Court overturned the South Carolina court’s decision in Sherbert v. Verner, ruling that states cannot deny unemployment compensation to individuals who were fired due to their religious beliefs.
The Court found that the state’s requirement for Saturday work was a burden on Sherbert’s religious practices and that the state had failed to show a compelling interest in the requirement that would justify denying her unemployment benefits.
This case established that the government must accommodate religious practices unless doing so would cause an undue burden on the government or other parties.
2.2.4 Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971):
The aforementioned Supreme Court decision is known to be Lemon v. Kurtzman, and it struck down a Pennsylvania law that allowed the state to reimburse Catholic schools for the salaries of teachers who taught in those schools.
The case established what is known as the “Lemon Test,” a three-part test to determine when a state or federal law violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
The test requires that a law must have a secular purpose, cannot promote or inhibit religion, and cannot create excessive entanglement between government and religion.
2.2.5 Ten Commandments Cases (2005):
In 2005, the Supreme Court came to seemingly contradictory decisions in two cases involving the display of the Ten Commandments on public property. In Van Orden v. Perry, the Supreme Court held that the monument had a secular purpose and did not have the effect of endorsing religion.
However, in McCreary County v. ACLU, the Supreme Court found that the purpose behind the display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses was to promote religion, and therefore, it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
These cases show that the context and circumstances of the display of religious symbols on public property are important in determining whether they are constitutional or not.
2.3 Right to Assemble & Right to Petition
2.3.1 NAACP v. Alabama (1958):
The NAACP brought a case before the Supreme Court after an Alabama Circuit Court ordered them to stop operating in the state and demanded access to their membership list. The NAACP argued that such a disclosure would threaten the privacy and safety of their members.
In the said case, the Supreme Court sided with the NAACP, recognizing the crucial connection between freedom of association and privacy in one’s associations.
The Court ruled that compelled disclosure of the NAACP’s membership list would have a chilling effect on the organization’s First Amendment rights and could lead to retaliation against its members.
The decision strengthened the protection of privacy for groups and associations and affirmed the right of people to engage in political activities without fear of retribution.
2.3.2 Edwards v. South Carolina (1962):
In 1961, a group of 187 Black students in South Carolina marched from Zion Baptist Church to the state capitol to protest segregation. However, they were arrested and convicted of breaching the peace.
The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in an 8-1 decision to reverse the convictions.
The Supreme Court of the United States held in the said case that the state had violated the First Amendment rights of the students, including their freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
This decision established that peaceful protest is a protected form of free speech and assembly under the First Amendment, and that government cannot use the breach of peace doctrine to suppress such protests.
3. The First Amendment and How it is Today
The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees certain fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition. These rights are still vital today as they were when they were first enshrined in the Constitution over 200 years ago.
However, in recent times, these freedoms have come under attack, and courageous individuals are needed to stand up for them.
There have been instances of school officials prohibiting students from expressing their religious beliefs, local authorities and police suppressing dissenting opinions, and journalists facing threats of imprisonment for exposing important government programs.
To ensure that these essential rights are preserved, it is crucial for people to speak out against such violations and fight for the protection of their First Amendment rights. As history has shown, upholding these freedoms requires individuals who are willing to take a stand in their defence.
The incident involving University of Florida student Andrew Meyer is a prime example of the First Amendment being under attack. In September 2007, Meyer was forcibly removed by police and tasered for refusing to leave the microphone after his allotted time to ask a question to Senator John Kerry during a forum.
Adding further, Kerry himself stated that he was prepared to answer Meyer’s question. The incident sparked outrage and a discussion about the role of police in suppressing free speech and peaceful protest. It serves as a reminder that the defence of our First Amendment rights requires constant vigilance and action.
The freedom of the press is an essential aspect of the First Amendment that ensures the preservation of liberty in the United States. However, this freedom has come under attack from the government in various ways, such as attempting to force journalists to reveal their sources.
The protection of journalists’ sources is critical to encouraging government whistle-blowers to come forward with information about corruption and abuse.
Without this protection, journalists would be less likely to receive information that is of public importance, and scandals such as the Watergate scandal might never come to light. Therefore, the freedom of the press is a fundamental aspect of American democracy that must be protected at all costs.
The freedom of the press, which is essential for preserving liberty, has been under attack in recent years. One of the fundamental principles that ensure a free press is the protection of journalists’ sources.
This enables government whistleblowers to come forward and reveal information of public importance without fear of being exposed. If journalists were forced to reveal their sources, scandals involving government corruption and wrongdoing might never come to light.
However, in the case of the federal government’s investigations into steroid abuse and the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), two journalists from the San Francisco Chronicle were threatened with up to 18 months in prison for refusing to reveal their sources.
The said sentence was longer than the combined sentences for all those convicted in the BALCO case. Although the whistle-blower eventually came forward, the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice was so eager to attack the basic right of the press to protect its sources demonstrates how the fundamental rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights are being undermined.
In 2005, the New York Times published an article revealing that the National Security Agency (NSA) was conducting warrantless wiretapping on American citizens. This was a highly controversial program and many argued that it violated the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans.
In response to the publication of this information, then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales suggested that the New York Times and other media outlets could be prosecuted for publishing classified information. This caused concern among journalists and free speech advocates who saw it as an attack on the freedom of the press.
Some argued that such actions could have a chilling effect on journalists, who may be hesitant to report on important issues for fear of being prosecuted or facing government reprisals.
Ultimately, no journalists were prosecuted for their reporting on the NSA surveillance program, but the incident raised important questions about the limits of press freedom in the United States.
The concept of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights focused primarily on four aspects that were of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the freedom of the press, and the right to peaceful protest and petition the government.
From understanding the definition of the said amendment, diving deeper into the analysis of each type of freedom to shining light on how the first amendment is perceived in today’s time, it is evident that this amendment has not only grown but also has left a huge impact in the development of the United States as a whole.