1st Amendment – What does that mean?

The First 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights.  There is often discussion and debate about what these amendments mean. Without bringing a political view and without giving legal advice, below is the text of the 1st Amendment and some commentary on it.

Amendment I: 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 most important part of this amendment is that Congress, meaning the government, cannot impose laws that restrict a person’s freedom of speech, the press, for people to peaceably assemble, or to petition the Government. This is important because in the media people start talking about a violation of the 1st Amendment, when a private organization penalizes an employee for how they protest or behaved.  When a private organization is doing this, it is not a restriction of free speech, because this amendment only applies when the government does this. Additionally, many employment contacts, even for government workers, have a clause that states if you disparage your employer they can terminate you.  Again, this is not a violation of the 1st Amendment, as it was a condition of employment and the courts have states you do not have to work for a company, or the government, if you do not like the employment contract. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that students do not have full use of this amendment while they are in a school (ex. editors can modify school newspapers, illegal drugs cannot be promoted at a school sponsored event, etc.). This Amendment also, does not give a person freedom from consequences of their speech. For example, there are consequences for burning a draft card, and for using speech to incite violence or to encourage harming others (or property).

Now, it is also important to know that there are exceptions to this rule.  There have been several court cases about these exceptions. The U.S. Court System has given different ruling, because each is case specific, about newspapers that print classified information.  There are even restrictions on what the press can print, for example there have been several court ruling that state the press cannot print or publish what is knows to be lies or false information. This means that if the media knows that information is untrue it cannot spread that information, and if it does the media can be held at fault for knowingly spreading lies. The courts have ways for the media to prove or show that they tried to validate the information and had good faith that the information was accurate and truthful.

Interestingly the right to peacefully assemble is usually not a hot topic.  Local ordinances that require people to get permits to protest is usually not questioned in court cases. What has been questioned or fought is who is allowed to protest, but usually not that the group had to get a permit.

Freedom of religion has some interesting rulings. One of the landmark cases was Epperson v. Arkansas, which ruled that teachers were allowed to teach about evolution. Other cases have protected an atheist’s right to not practice a religion.

This amendment is so complex, and so often mistakenly cited, that one blog cannot do it justice. Entire courses are offered on this topic and it is still evolving and being discussed in the courts.


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