The 1st Amendment of our U.S. Constitution is probably the most well known and most widely used. It protects American’s freedom of speech, religion, assembly, the press and the right to call out the government when it crosses boundaries.
The actual text from the Constitution reads: 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 1st Amendment law boils down to five main rights that all Americans enjoy.
The government is not allowed to enact any laws requiring U.S. citizens to abide by any religion or religious laws. Additionally, Americans are free to practice or believe any religion they wish or none at all.
The government cannot punish you for speaking your mind. The government does not have the authority to shut you up if you want to oppose a position they take on a particular subject.
Anyone has the right to assemble into groups for any reason whether for religious gatherings or other group activities.
The newspapers, radio, and TV have the right to speak their minds and say anything they like about the government and its citizens. The government cannot stifle the truth or prevent any news outlet from informing the public.
When a U.S. citizen feels the government has impinged their rights, they can take the case to the Supreme Court and fight for retribution.
Historically the 1st Amendment drew out of Thomas Jefferson’s pitch for “a wall of separation between church and State.” A few of the founding fathers of our nation were of varying religions and wanted to keep their freedoms, thus the 1st Amendment.
During the 20th and 21st centuries, the law evolved to keep up with changes in society. The rights of free speech expanded from their original beginnings, as the need for specific allowances grew such as political speech, school speech, anonymous speech and laws protecting unusual things like pornography. The original law did not account for these things as they did not yet exist and no precedent cases had been tried.
The famous Schenck v. United States case of 1919 coined the phrase “falsely shouting fire in a theatre” and birthed the “clear and present danger test” to evaluate whether free speech falls under the 1st amendment protection. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated: “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has the right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.”
In the landmark case of Salvail v. Nashua Board of Education in 1979 the Nashua, New Hampshire School Board of Education defended their right to remove MS Magazine from the school library and in the process violated students rights to free press and to read whatever they like. The school board lost the case and the magazine was returned into circulation.
In 1969 students who wore black armbands to protest the Vietnam war were expelled by the Des Moines school board in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The court overturned the expulsion and students were allowed to wear the bands and return to school. The Supreme Court was quoted as saying students “do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.”
The 1st Amendment protects the rights of all Americans in a variety of ways like in Stanley v. Georgia where a man was arrested for having pornographic and obscene material in his home for personal use. The Supreme Court overturned the ruling and protected the man’s right to privacy and free press, stating: the U.S. government “cannot constitutionally premise legislation on the desirability of controlling a person’s private thoughts.”
Since its enactment, the 1st Amendment has bravely protected many Americanfreedoms that without them, our country would not be what it is today.