Civil Liberties: Freedom of Speech

Civil liberties were created to protect the people from government power. They are liberties that every US citizen has a fundamental right too. The 27 amendments in the Constitution describe what these liberties are, and over the years the Supreme Court has clarified what these liberties really mean. As stated in the First Amendment of the Constitution, 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. (US Const. Amend. I). Freedom of Speech is one of the most important civil liberties in the US constitution. It has taken many court cases including, Tinker v. Des Moines, Texas v. Johnson, and Bethel School District v. Fraser, to clearly clarify what it means. The right to freedom of speech is a fundamental part of the Constitution because it lets US citizens express their ideas and opinions without interference from government or fear of reprimand.

Freedom of speech is a vital liberty that every US citizen has the right to, and it has taken many years for this country to define what it is. The First amendment of the constitution protects this liberty as stated, Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech (US Const. Amend. I). This fundamental right allows people to freely express their opinions and views, no matter how controversial they may be, and, as a result, it promotes a wiser and more informed community. Although everyone has the right to this liberty, there are some restrictions to this freedom, that over the years congress has created, in order to prevent the harm of others (i.e. how it is illegal to shout fire in a crowded theater).There have been numerous court cases involving people who feel their right to freedom of speech has been violated, i.e. Tinker v Des Moines. These cases are important because they have helped Congress to clearly define the general statement of freedom of speech, and give it a more specific meaning.

One of the most significant cases for freedom of speech is Tinker v. Des Moines because it defined what students constitutional rights are in school. This case is about John, Christopher, and Mary Beth Tinker, who wore black armbands to their school in Des Moines, Iowa, to peacefully protests the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. The Tinkers were suspended after being asked to take the armbands off and refusing because the Des Moines school district banned the wearing of the armbands. The parents of the children decided to sue the school in the district court, claiming their suspension violated their first amendment right to freedom of speech.The district court sided with the school, saying that the rule was needed to prevent the disturbance of school activities(Tinker v. Des Moines.).

The parents kept appealing the case until it reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled on February 24, 1969, in a vote 7-2, that in public schools, students have their constitutional right of freedom of speech, and unless the speech is evidently causing a substantial disturbance in students learning, it is protected under the constitution. This case was significant in protecting students rights to freely express their opinions in school, peacefully. Tinker v Des Moines forever changed how school districts dealt with protests, and other forms of speech students express. The case gave students, throughout the US, more protection to express their political opinions in school.

Another important case is Texas v. Johnson, which showed that even the expression of the most unpopular and controversial opinions and views are protected under the constitution. In Dallas, Texas, during the Republican National Convention, protestors were protesting the policies of the Reagan Administration and they were protesting other corporations in Dallas. During this protest, when the protestors marched to the City Hall, Gregory Lee Johnson set the American Flag on fire. Johnson was charged with the crime of vandalizing venerated objects, which was illegal in the state of Texas.

He was sentenced to one year in prison, and he received a $2,000 fine. He appealed his case until it reached the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, they said the state cant convict Johnson because what he did was symbolic speech, which is protected under the First Amendment. His actions didnt harm anyone or disturb the peace. The state petitioned for a writ of certiorari, aka they asked the Supreme Court to review the case, and the Supreme Court decision, on June 21, 1989, was 5-4 for Johnson. The court said that his actions were protected by the First Amendment because it is symbolic speech. Justice William Brennan said If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. . . .”(Brennan). This case is significant in enforcing the protection of controversial speech under the constitution.

Bethel School District v. Fraser is another major case in distinguishing what types of speech are protected under the constitution for children in public school. This case involves Matthew Fraser, who was giving a speech at a school assembly, nominating one of his friends for an elective office in the student government. In his speech he used sexual references to advocate his friend. Fraser was suspended from school for violating the school policy that prohibits the use of obscene language (Decker).

Frasers dad filed a suit claiming that his punishment violated Frasers First Amendment rights. The case went through the district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, than it was appealed to the supreme court. The supreme court decided on July 7, 1986, with a 7-2 decision, that the school is allowed to regulate vulgar speech. They said his speech did cause a disruption in the learning process. The court said that even though the expression of unpopular views are allowed to be expressed in school, schools can regulate offensive and lewd speech, which is what they say Frasers speech was. Chief Justice Burger stated that the school isnt violating the First Amendment rights of Fraser because his speech doesnt align with the fundamental values of public school education(Burger). This case is important in further clarifying what type of speech children in public school are and are not allowed to express. It shows that children in school do not have as much freedom of speech as adults because of these fundamental values of public school education(Burger), which doesnt include the use of vulgar language that disturbs the education process and potentially damages the younger students.

The US is the the land of the free, which goes to show why freedom of speech is so significant in our country. It is written in our constitution, Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech (US Const. Amend. I) and is the central issue of thousands of court cases through US history and today. This right is so important to have for all of the cases where people have been abridged of their right, but than those 10 words in the constitution save them from any punishment they could have wrongfully received. Texas v. Johnson and Tinker v. Des Moines are both prime examples to this. They were both initially accused of a crime for controversial opinions but their constitutional right saved them from any punishment they could have received, and that same situation has occurred for many people. Freedom of speech allows for the minority to express there unpopular opinions without punishment.

All these court cases always comes to the question of, does this violate the first amendment right of freedom of speech? But what if that first amendment right wasnt there? If freedom of speech wasnt a fundamental right in the US, this country would be immensely different. First of all, people like the Tinkers and Johnson, could get punished for sharing their unpopular opinions about political topics because they wouldnt have the constitutional right to do so. Also, without this right, news channels and papers wouldnt be sharing information with the country as easily about, worldly news, political event, new laws, etc. because they wouldnt have the freedom to do so. All of this this leads to censorship and a more repressive government.

As Justice Louis Brandeis stated, Those who won our independence believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth (Brandeis). Thanks to our constitution, we live in a country, where people can express their opinions and thoughts, as long as its peaceful, freely and without punishment. The constitution gives us grounds to challenge anyone who tries to suppress our speech through authority, as evident through the court cases I discussed.

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