First Amendment Freedoms

The Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These amendments describe the rights of the American people. The 1st Amendment is the most important. It protects several basic rights. These rights are known as 1st Amendment Freedoms.

The 1st Amendment says, "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 of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

These rights limit the powers of the federal (national) government. The 14th Amendment (1868) applied the same limits to state governments. Some U.S. Supreme Court decisions further defined these rights.

Freedom of Religion

The 1st Amendment prohibits establishing an official religion. This is to ensure that no one religion will be favored by the government. The Supreme Court then went further. It said that the amendment requires a "wall of separation" between church (religion) and state (government). That was in a case called Everson v. Board of Education (1947). Later the court said that schools could not organize prayers because of this. Prayers are the business of churches, not of schools.

"Free exercise" of religion means that people can worship as they please. The government cannot tell them what religion to follow.

Freedom of Speech, the Press, Assembly, and Petition

"Freedom of expression" has to do with the freedom to say something and to print something. Over the years, the Supreme Court has expanded the scope of this freedom. Originally, states could restrict expression in certain circumstances. They could restrict expression if it tended to "corrupt public morals." They could restrict it if it tended to "incite to crime." And they could restrict it if it tended to "disturb the public peace." In 1937, the Supreme Court replaced that standard. The court ruled that states could restrict expression only if it presented a "clear and present danger" to the community’s safety. This new standard was first suggested in an earlier case, Schenck v. United States (1919).

Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) also dealt with freedom of speech. The court ruled that speech could be limited only if harm was "imminent" or "likely." The 1st Amendment also protects symbolic expression. The burning of an American flag is an example of this.


The rule of "no prior restraint" is essential to freedom of the press. It means the government cannot prevent materials from being published. This was reaffirmed in New York Times Company v. United States (1971). In this case, the U.S. government sued two newspapers to prevent their publishing the Pentagon Papers. That was a government study about the Vietnam War. The study was classified as secret. Nevertheless, the court ruled against the government.

The 1st Amendment allows criticism of public figures. One case dealing with this issue was New York Times Company v. Sullivan (1964). The Supreme Court ruled that a public person cannot sue an individual or the media for libel. Libel is the publishing of material that harms a person's reputation. The only exception is if "actual malice" can be shown. Malice is reckless disregard of the truth.

The same principle applies to freedom of assembly. Governments can regulate certain aspects of a public meeting. For example, they can set the time of a meeting. They can set its place. And they can limit its size. But they cannot refuse to grant permission based on what might be said at the meeting.

An American's right to petition the government is guaranteed. That is, any citizen can formally ask the government to do something. The right to criticize the government is also guaranteed. Citizens may enjoy these rights as long as they do not harm others or threaten public safety.

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