The First Amendment in History
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."
-- Amendment One, Bill of Rights, United States Constitution
The History of the First Amendment
Thomas Jefferson once claimed, “A democracy cannot be both ignorant and free.” This was the commonly held attitude of the “enlightened” men who settled the United States. The framers of the Constitution believed that if the new U.S. citizens failed to take care to share information completely among themselves, they would be worse off than they had been as subjects of the British monarchy they fled.
The new American settlers brought with them a desire for democracy and openness. They left behind a history of tyranny and official control of information. Using this experience as their guide, the constitutional fathers wrote into their new Constitution a Bill of Rights, which contained the First Amendment.
The Bill of Rights consists of the first ten amendments, which contain procedural and substantive guarantees of individual liberties and limits upon government control and intervention.
The First Amendment, perhaps the best known of these freedoms and protections, prohibits the establishment of a state-supported church, requires the separation of church and state, and guarantees freedom of worship, of speech and the press, the rights of peaceable assembly, association and petition.
While some Supreme Court justices have declared that First Amendment freedoms are absolute or occupy a preferred position, the Court has routinely held they may be limited so as to protect the rights of others (e.g. libel, privacy), or to guard against subversion of the government and the spreading of dissension in wartime. Thus, the Court’s majority has remained firm — the First Amendment rights are not absolute.
Only two Supreme Court justices, Justice Hugo Black and Justice William O. Douglas, insisted the First Amendment rights are absolute and their dissenting opinions fell to the wayside. Most court cases involving the First Amendment involve weighing two concerns: public vs. private. Also, the Supreme Court has often defined certain speech, also known as “at risk speech,” as being unprotected by the First Amendment:
•Burning draft cards to protest draft — prohibited because of superior governmental interest.
•Words likely to incite imminent violence, termed “fighting words.”
•Words immediately jeopardizing national security.
•Newspaper publishing false and defamatory material — libel.
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