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What is the First Amendment?

The First Amendment is the cornerstone of American democracy, enshrining the essential freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition. It protects citizens' rights to express ideas without government restraint—a fundamental principle that shapes public discourse. How does this amendment impact your daily life? Explore its profound influence on society's evolution and your personal liberties. What's your experience with these freedoms?
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The First Amendment is the first addition to the US Constitution, and the beginning of the ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights. The rights included in the amendment are freedom of speech, the right to a free press, freedom to practice any religion, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government to redress grievances. James Madison, who became the fourth president of the US, wrote the Bill of Rights, but he had help and inspiration in creating it. Thomas Jefferson was Madison’s mentor, and he actually convinced Madison to change his mind and add these amendments to the Constitution. They are based on the work of many of the thinkers of the Enlightenment period, such as John Locke.

There are actually several rights guaranteed to citizens in the First Amendment. Many people remember two of them: the right to free speech and the right to a free press. Both of these are fairly closely related, and do frustrate people from time to time. That people may say “anything” no matter how evil, mean, racist or otherwise, and write anything, no matter how unfair, slanted, or otherwise, can be a challenge to many who wish that certain groups would not air their opinions. Inherent in this right, however, is the ability to respond when one feels attacked or wishes to challenge the opinions of others. It has sometimes been called an advanced citizenship, which means that a government can't have rights for some without granting them for all.

Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment.

There are certain exceptions to free speech and free press. Writing or speaking words that could be constituted as a threat to the American people, such as issuing a bomb threat or yelling “fire” in a theater, can quickly curtail a person's right to free speech. Other things, like seriously threatening the life of someone, particularly an elected official, may cause a person to be considered an enemy of the state.

The First Amendment grants all citizens the right to practice any religion.
The First Amendment grants all citizens the right to practice any religion.

There are other rights guaranteed in the First Amendment: the right to the free exercise of any religion, the right of peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government to redress grievances. These rights struck at the heart of many issues that had existed while America still was under British rule. Right to peaceful assembly had been banned by some British governors, while the ability to petition the government was touch and go, and the British Government ignored most petitions. Free exercise of religion faced increasing challenges, particularly with anti-Catholic sentiment in England, and with the diverse sects of primarily Christian religions settling in the New World.

James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights with some help from Thomas Jefferson.
James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights with some help from Thomas Jefferson.

Not only were these rights under constant abuse, but speaking against British rule or writing anything negative about the British government could be considered treasonous. It was, therefore, considered wise to clarify that a new American government must make these rights available to its people. Nevertheless, though many consider the First Amendment the core of American society, there are constant arguments about what it means. This began with the founding fathers, and has continued to the present. Though the amendment seems straightforward, it has faced numerous challenges, and will likely continue to be tested.

Frequently Asked Questions

What rights are protected under the First Amendment?

Freedom of speech, which was illustrated by artist Norman Rockwell as part of his The Four Freedoms series, was one of the rights enumerated in the First Amendment.
Freedom of speech, which was illustrated by artist Norman Rockwell as part of his The Four Freedoms series, was one of the rights enumerated in the First Amendment.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution safeguards several fundamental freedoms. It protects the freedom of speech, allowing individuals to express themselves without government interference. It also ensures the freedom of the press, enabling journalists to report without censorship. The amendment guarantees the right to peaceful assembly, allowing people to gather and protest. Additionally, it upholds the freedom of religion, prohibiting the government from establishing a national religion or impeding religious practices. Lastly, it secures the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, which means citizens can formally request changes or express dissatisfaction with government actions.

Why is the First Amendment important to American democracy?

The Bill of Rights, which includes the First Amendment, was written to enumerate personal freedoms and rights that were not expressly described in the U.S. Constitution.
The Bill of Rights, which includes the First Amendment, was written to enumerate personal freedoms and rights that were not expressly described in the U.S. Constitution.

The First Amendment is crucial to American democracy as it fosters a marketplace of ideas where citizens can debate and discuss freely. This open exchange is essential for the democratic process, allowing for the informed participation of the electorate. It also acts as a check on governmental power, preventing the suppression of dissent and criticism, which is vital for holding leaders accountable. By protecting individual rights to speak, assemble, and worship, the First Amendment ensures that diverse perspectives can coexist, contributing to a robust and resilient society.

How does the First Amendment affect the media?

Rights contained in the First Amendment are based on ideas by thinkers of the Enlightenment period, including British philosopher John Locke.
Rights contained in the First Amendment are based on ideas by thinkers of the Enlightenment period, including British philosopher John Locke.

The First Amendment's protection of press freedom is a cornerstone of American media. It allows journalists and news organizations to investigate and report on government and other powerful entities without fear of censorship or punishment. This freedom is essential for transparency and accountability in public affairs. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the First Amendment enables the media to fulfill their role as a watchdog, informing the public and contributing to an informed society (https://www.rcfp.org/).

Can the government ever limit First Amendment freedoms?

Even the founding fathers debated the meaning of the First Amendment.
Even the founding fathers debated the meaning of the First Amendment.

While the First Amendment provides robust protections, these freedoms are not absolute. The government can impose certain restrictions, typically when speech poses a clear and present danger, leads to illegal actions, or incites violence. For example, the Supreme Court has upheld limitations on obscenity, child pornography, and speech that incites imminent lawless action. Time, place, and manner restrictions are also permissible, provided they are content-neutral, narrowly tailored, serve a significant governmental interest, and leave open alternative channels for communication.

How does the First Amendment apply to schools and students?

The First Amendment granted rights including freedom of peaceful assembly.
The First Amendment granted rights including freedom of peaceful assembly.

The First Amendment applies to public schools and students, but with some nuances. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, students do not lose their constitutional rights "at the schoolhouse gate." However, the courts have allowed schools to regulate speech that disrupts the educational process or violates the rights of others. In landmark cases like Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court has ruled that students have the right to express themselves unless it substantially interferes with the operation of the school (https://www.aclu.org/other/free-speech-rights-public-school-students).

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent UnitedStatesNow contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent UnitedStatesNow contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon945444

What is symbolic speech under the first amendment?

anon290616

I like bacon! No one ever says anything about that but if you make a comment about a politician and it's negative, boy you get your head chewed off sometimes. Why is that?

anon264005

I work for a city in Southern California. Is it an invasion of privacy for me to use a GPS device to track the whereabouts of a coworker who is on the clock and using a city owned vehicle? My suspicion is that the coworker is abusing the system by using a city vehicle on city time doing personal business.

anon208642

The First Amendment does not take the right to pray or to believe in God away from anybody. It prohibits the federal government from establishing or endorsing one religion. The idea of deporting people who don't embrace the Christian religion would have disturbed the founding fathers. They were primarily Christian and Jewish themselves, but that was because they hailed from countries where Judeo-Christianity was the predominant religion. Their Christianity in and of itself didn't make their governing skills any better than other countries with different religions or no religion at all.

Essentially, the US Constitution can be boiled down into one sentence: "Let's not be British about this." England *did* have a government-sponsored religion (Church of England), and a lot of citizens suffered because of it. When the US Constitution was drafted, many of the founding fathers wanted to make sure that their "new" country would be far more tolerant of other viewpoints and other religious practices. It's no coincidence that the US Constitution was written at the same time as the German Enlightenment movement was taking hold in Europe.

The First Amendment rights should also end with the unspoken words "by the government". Publishers and speakers have the right to express their opinions, but they can only expect protection from *government* censorship. There are social limits to almost every right mentioned in that amendment. While the government may not be able to force magazines like Playboy or Hustler to stop publishing nude photos, for example, private citizens can still boycott places that sell those magazines, or petition for stronger obscenity laws. There is freedom OF speech, but there is also freedom *from* speech. Hate speech or obscenity may not violate the First Amendment according to the government, but the people who are offended can still take legal action against the speech makers or the publishers if they so choose.

anon62940

No one anywhere nor the Supreme Court has the right to take God and prayer away from anyone or anywhere. If someone moves to the US and is not a christian, then go back where you came from. We the US people do not attack others.

If God were to be feared as he should be and if our government used prayer and sought God's guidance, then we would have a true people run government. No one will ever take God and prayer away from me.

anon56944

The First Amendment is somehow found very hopeful and helpful as it is freedom of religion to people to believing in God, but it is also very liberal in mind that since then people have started to take advantage of this amendment and use it to start their own beliefs.

God gave Adam and Eve everything they ever needed, but with limits as pertaining to the free will they had from God. They made the wrong choice from starting or wondering on what a fruit could taste like and why not take it and eat it? Well this same process of human nature has been going and going for thousands of years and it will not stop till we make the right decision!

anon46827

Think *hard*. Doesn't it seem to you that in the case Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000). The ruling was to ban student led prayer in school (intiated by one mormon and one catholic). Based on the establishment clause. Isn't the supreme court violating the first amendment by respecting an establishment of a religion. (i.e. they removed God, which was already there, making it a respected establishment religion which is agnostic). Our rights were removed.

traehegdirb

I guess free speech also allows carl rove to call joe biden a liar.

When I heard rove call joe a liar, I wondered to myself. "hummmm..one politician calling another politician a liar...there must be a word for that."

traehegdirb

Where in the First Amendment does it grant the right to donate money to government officials or those running for office within the government?

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    • Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment.
      By: Scanrail
      Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the First Amendment.
    • The First Amendment grants all citizens the right to practice any religion.
      By: James Steidl
      The First Amendment grants all citizens the right to practice any religion.
    • James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights with some help from Thomas Jefferson.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights with some help from Thomas Jefferson.
    • Freedom of speech, which was illustrated by artist Norman Rockwell as part of his The Four Freedoms series, was one of the rights enumerated in the First Amendment.
      By: Keijo Knutas
      Freedom of speech, which was illustrated by artist Norman Rockwell as part of his The Four Freedoms series, was one of the rights enumerated in the First Amendment.
    • The Bill of Rights, which includes the First Amendment, was written to enumerate personal freedoms and rights that were not expressly described in the U.S. Constitution.
      By: James Steidl
      The Bill of Rights, which includes the First Amendment, was written to enumerate personal freedoms and rights that were not expressly described in the U.S. Constitution.
    • Rights contained in the First Amendment are based on ideas by thinkers of the Enlightenment period, including British philosopher John Locke.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      Rights contained in the First Amendment are based on ideas by thinkers of the Enlightenment period, including British philosopher John Locke.
    • Even the founding fathers debated the meaning of the First Amendment.
      By: trekandshoot
      Even the founding fathers debated the meaning of the First Amendment.
    • The First Amendment granted rights including freedom of peaceful assembly.
      By: Ints Vikmanis
      The First Amendment granted rights including freedom of peaceful assembly.