courtesy of www.firstamendmentcenter.org
The First Amendment
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 First Amendment was written because at America's inception, citizens
demanded a guarantee of their basic freedoms. Our blueprint for personal
freedom and the hallmark of an open society, the First Amendment protects
freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition. Without the First
Amendment, religious minorities could be persecuted, the government might
well establish a national religion, protesters could be silenced, the press could
not criticize government, and citizens could not mobilize for social change.
When the U.S. Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787, it did not contain the
essential freedoms now outlined in the Bill of Rights, because many of the
Framers viewed their inclusion as unnecessary. However, after vigorous
debate, the Bill of Rights was adopted. The first freedoms guaranteed in this
historic document were articulated in the 45 words written by James Madison
that we have come to know as the First Amendment.
The Bill of Rights - the first 10 amendments to the Constitution - went into
effect on Dec. 15, 1791, when the state of Virginia ratified it, giving the bill the
majority of ratifying states required to protect citizens from the power of the
The First Amendment ensures that "if there is any fixed star in our
constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe
what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or force citizens to
confess by word or act their faith therein," as Justice Robert Jackson wrote in
the 1943 case West Virginia v. Barnette. And as Justice William Brennan wrote
in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in 1964, the First Amendment provides that
"debate on public issues ... [should be] ... uninhibited, robust, and wide-open."
However, Americans vigorously dispute the application of the First Amendment.
Most people believe in the right to free speech, but debate whether it should
cover flag-burning, hard-core rap and heavy-metal lyrics, tobacco advertising,
hate speech, pornography, nude dancing, solicitation and various forms of
symbolic speech. Many would agree to limiting some forms of free expression,
as seen in the First Amendment Center's State of the First Amendment survey
Most people, at some level, recognize the necessity of religious liberty and
toleration, but some balk when a religious tenet of a minority religion conflicts
with a generally applicable law or with their own religious faith. Many
Americans see the need to separate the state from the church to some extent,
but decry the banning of school-sponsored prayer from public schools and the
removal of the Ten Commandments from public buildings.
Further, courts wrestle daily with First Amendment controversies and
constitutional clashes, as evidenced by the free-press vs. fair-trial debate and
the dilemma of First Amendment liberty principles vs. the equality values of the
Such difficulties are the price of freedom of speech and religion in a tolerant,