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.
First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Perhaps the most important and the most contentious portion of the United States Constitution, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—the first of the Bill of Rights—was instrumental in ensuring that the new Constitution would be accepted by citizens of the fledgling United States at the end of the eighteenth century. The Constitution set up a government of limited, enumerated powers. “Enumerated powers” meant that the federal government, as originally envisioned, could take no action unless the Constitution explicitly granted the government the power to take that action. In theory, then, the federal government could not restrict freedom of speech because the Constitution did not give Congress permission to restrict freedom of speech. Many American citizens, however, having just fought a war resulting from Britain’s disregard for their rights, were leery of entrusting their newly-won freedom to a government with no explicit protections for individual rights. They did not believe that the “lack of permission” for Congress to act was strong enough protection. To address these concerns, twelve articles, known as the Bill of Rights, were submitted to the states for ratification as amendments to the Constitution. Of these twelve articles, the last ten were ratified in the eighteenth century (the second article of the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1992 as the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). Unlike the main text of the Constitution, the articles of the Bill of Rights are explicit prohibitions on the government, designed to prevent the federal government from being able to trample on the rights of states and citizens.
The First Amendment famously begins, “Congress shall make no law….” The First Amendment originally limited only Congress and, thus, the federal government. State and local governments were not limited by this (or any other) amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment was considered to only apply to the federal government until 1925 when the Supreme Court, in Gitlow v. New York, held that the Fourteenth Amendment, which applies to the states, “incorporated” the First Amendment.
Following the statement that the First Amendment applies to Congress are five clauses, each protecting one aspect of the flow of ideas. These five clauses are the Establishment Clause (“…respecting an establishment of religion”), the Free Exercise Clause (“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”), the Free Speech Clause (“or abridging the freedom of speech”), the Free Press Clause (“or of the press”), and the Assembly and Petition Clause (“or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”).
The first two clauses of the First Amendment protect religious liberty. The Establishment Clause, a reaction against the abuses of the Church of England, was originally intended to prohibit the government from establishing an official national religion or supporting one religious denomination over another. This clause has since been re-interpreted to say that government may not favor religion in general, thus leading to increased attempts to secularize society, including banning any possibly perceived “endorsement” of religion by the government. The Free Exercise Clause is the counterpoint to the Establishment Clause. While the Establishment Clause prevents the government from establishing a religion, the Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from interfering with individuals’ religious expression.
The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment protects the expression of ideas. Not all speech is equally protected, however. Political speech is afforded the greatest protection under the First Amendment. Commercial speech—speech done to make a profit—is given less protection. The guaranty of freedom of speech does not extend to certain types of speech, such as obscenity or speech that incites immediate violence. The government is also allowed to place some reasonable limits on when, where, and how speech can take place, but these limits cannot be used to favor one viewpoint over another. For example, a government can prohibit the use of megaphones at night near residential areas, or a government can prohibit a demonstration from walking through a secured military base. If, however, the government allows one group to use a megaphone at night near a residential area, then the government cannot prohibit another group from doing so based on the viewpoint that the second group espouses.
The Free Press Clause is closely related to the Free Speech Clause, but applies to printed communications. This clause has also been used to strike down taxes that specifically target newspapers and laws that require “fairness” in reporting.
Finally, the Assembly and Petition Clause protects the right of people to assemble together and to petition the government. This clause is important in a republic because petitioning the government is one of the main ways the citizenry exercises its sovereignty. While this clause protects the right of the people to petition the government, it does not require that government officials actually listen to or respond to any petition attempt.
Ultimately, a true republican form of government cannot exist apart from the free flow of ideas. Additionally, this amendment ensures that the government cannot impose a state orthodoxy, violating the conscience of those who hold unpopular views or forcing them into intellectual submission. This amendment also ensures that open debate is not thwarted, for as John Milton said, “Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.”
Kelly Shackelford, Esq., is President/CEO for Liberty Institute, a post he has held since 1997. A constitutional scholar, Mr. Shackelford has argued before the United States Supreme Court, testified before the U.S. House and Senate on Constitutional issues, and is on the Board of Trustees of the United States Supreme Court Historical Society.
Justin Butterfield, Esq. is a Constitutional attorney on staff with Liberty Institute. Mr. Butterfield graduated from Harvard Law School in 2007. He also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Texas at El Paso where he graduated Summa Cum Laude.