First Amendment Freedoms

Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in Washington D.C., Aug. 23, 1963

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects several basic rights of American citizens. It 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 the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." These rights were originally granted to limit the powers of the national (federal) government. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, applied the same restrictions to state governments.

Freedom of Religion

The First Amendment prohibits establishing an official national, or state, religion. This is to make certain that no one religion will be favored by the government. The Supreme Court has also determined that the amendment calls for a "wall of separation" between church (religion) and state (government). In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), all forms of "official," or organized, prayer in public schools were banned. The government was also prohibited from providing certain forms of aid to private religious schools.

One clause of the First Amendment addresses "free exercise." It was intended to let people worship as they please, free from control of the state. In 1993, Congress reinforced this right by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Any law that intrudes on the free exercise of religion must be shown to serve a "compelling governmental interest."

Freedom of Speech, Press, Assembly, and Petition

Over the years, freedom of speech and freedom of the press have flourished. The Supreme Court has gradually expanded the scope of what may be considered allowable expression. Traditionally, states were permitted to restrict press or speech "tending to corrupt public morals, incite to crime, or disturb the public peace." In 1937, however, the Supreme Court replaced this standard. In Schenck v. United States (1919), the Court ruled that states can restrict expression only when a "clear and present danger" to the safety of the community can be demonstrated.

In recent decades the Court has required the government to justify restrictions of speech or assembly. According to Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), any harm or wrongdoing that might result from speech must be shown to be "imminent" or "likely." Symbolic speech or expression, such as burning an American flag, is also protected by the First Amendment.

The doctrine of "no prior restraint" is essential to the freedom of the press. This means that government may not censor or prohibit materials from being published. This was reaffirmed in New York Times Company v. United States (1971). In this case, the U.S. government sued, unsuccessfully, to prevent two newspapers from publishing the now-famous Pentagon Papers. These documents were classified by the Defense Department. But the government could not prove that their publication threatened national security.

The First Amendment also allows criticism of public figures under a wide variety of circumstances. In New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), the Supreme Court ruled that a public person cannot sue an individual or the media for libel (publishing material harmful to that person's reputation). The only exception is if "actual malice," meaning a knowing or reckless disregard for the truth, can be shown.

The same principle applies to freedom of assembly. Federal, state, and municipal governments may regulate certain aspects of a public gathering. For example, they can dictate a time, place, or size of a meeting. But they cannot refuse to grant permission based on what is to be said.

As long as freedom of speech, press, and assembly are secure, an American's right to petition the government is guaranteed. So is the right to openly criticize its laws or policies. Citizens may enjoy these rights as long as they do not harm others or pose a threat to public safety.

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