The First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA

The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads as follows, 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. (U.S. Constitution) Why does freedom of speech matter? Freedom of speech is what protects people from expressing what matters to them.

Most religions consist of somehow creating more followers of that specific religion. Christianity, for example, would be classified as a religion with on of its principles being the sharing of the gospel. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:13-14 New International Version) This verse directly explains that people have to be told about the gospel, and proves that freedom of speech directly plays into freedom of religion.

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The press is without censorship in our country, and will remain to be that way for as long as this amendment is followed. Without freedom of speech, people do not write and publish about what they please.

Assembly also requires freedom of speech as well. There are assemblies held for protesting purposes and to support things, alike. Without freedom of speech, there would likely be nothing to protest because citizens would not be allowed to express opposing views of the government.

The freedom to petition the government, like the other freedoms mentioned in the first amendment, would be impossible without freedom of speech, as well. People would have no reason to petition the government unless something was happening that they disagreed with. Without freedom of speech, what would be disallowed? It would be the ability to speak against the government or to show any disagreement.
Speech is so necessary to people because without it, actions of others can be easily seen as meaningless, or they might be taken out of context. When people do the things they do, speech is the medium that explains the reasons and the motives for the actions that they have preformed. People may have the same actions and expressions as others, but speech is what differentiates the reasonings or causes that those actions are supported by. Speech is something that can easily define actions.

What is speech?

The speech, as referred to in the constitution, is not just the words that are spoken by people. There are many sources that may reference freedom of speech as the “freedom of expression” because the word “speech” is meant to act as an umbrella that covers all forms of ideas that are expressed. Whether people express their ideas through art, news articles, symbolic speech, clothing, speeches, or any actions preformed, it is protected as long the expression does not violate any of the few guidelines for it.

One case that shows the protected expression is the Tinker v. Des Moines School District in 1969 (Monroe, 2018). This is a case where several students wore black arm bands to express their disdain for the events of the Vietnam War. The students were doing nothing that was a real cause for concern, yet they still were receiving consequences, like being expelled, for their actions. Actions that should have been protected. They were not being distracting in school, breaking any type of dress code, or arousing tension and strife amongst students. Because there were no other symbols that were prohibited, the students wearing the arm bands were considered have been discriminated against. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students for all of the reasons expressed, and stated that they were protected under their first amendment right to freedom of speech.

Because speech covers so many things, there are several cases that are used to set the precedents for current and future cases, including this one. With different advancements in technology, there will surely be more cases to debate what is covered under freedom of speech or expression. In the future, expression may cover things that no one could possibly fathom to be an expression.

What is symbolic speech?

When someone chooses to express their opinion through actions rather than words it is considered symbolic speech. In the Tinker v. Des Moines School District case, the students’ decision to wear the arm bands in protest of war, was a form of symbolic speech that was protected (Monroe, 2018). Another example of this would be the Texas v. Johnson case, which had to do with the burning of the American flag that had previously been considered illegal in forty-eight of the states (Monroe, 2018).

In 1984 the Republican National Convention was held in Dallas, Texas, where Gregory Lee Johnson burned the American flag, which was considered prohibited, in protest of the Regan administration. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Johnson’s case after he had been tried and convicted by a Texas court. It was ruled that the burning of the flag was considered symbolic speech and that the viewpoint or reasoning for his actions could not be taken into account when trying him. If Johnson had been found guilty of a crime for burning the flag in protest, then others would also have to be found guilty when they burned and buried old, ragged flags out of respect.

How does expression effect an individual?

Clothing is considered part of freedom of speech, or expression, because the clothes we wear can often times express our opinions. When clothing is worn that represents a band, certain group of people, political party, or religious group, it shows that we support their ideas or practices, whether or not we actually do.

Wearing a shirt with a bible verse on it can outwardly show that one might be a Christian or that the verse applies to them in some way. The person could have no church ties or affiliation with anything that has to do with the Bible, other than that shirt, but because that shirt is worn, it still would appear that that person supports the Bible or Christians. In the same way, a person could wear a shirt that has gang references or related symbols and the association would be made that that person is supporting that particular gang. The person may have never been a part of a gang or done anything ?gang related’ in their lifetime, but because they wear something gang related, they will be associated with it.

This is why there are cases like Castorina v. Madison County School Board (Monroe, 2018). In 2001 there were two students, Tom Castorina and his girlfriend, who were suspended after wearing confederate flag shirts to school. When the students refused to change shirts or wear them inside out, they were suspended. The wearing of the shirts seemed to cause no harm and did not create a distraction in school. The court sided with the students and decided that the wearing of the confederate flag was protected under the first amendment. The rulings on the Tinker v. Des Moines School District and Texas v. Johnson cases were also taken into account and used as determining factors in this case.

Though there was no crime committed, and the students were considered protected, the fact that they expressed their freedom of speech still put a target on them just because someone else did not like what they expressed. In today’s society this is seen a lot. People do not take into consideration that others are just as free to say what they please as they are. When a person doesn’t like what someone else has to say, it does not take away the freedom that they have to say it.

Is there truly complete freedom?

There are a few, so called exceptions, to freedom of speech. Speech or expression is no longer protected if it promotes violence or contains true threats, suggests illegal acts, contains obscene material, such as child pornography, or is plagiarizing copyrighted material. Another limit is placed by The Espionage Act of 1917, which is a law that prohibits anything that could compromise recruitment into the armed forces or endanger any military operations (Monroe, 2018). This is another aid in setting boundaries for freedom of speech.

In our country, we are free to say whatever we wish, but just because we can say it does not mean that it will come without consequence. For example, yelling Fire! in a crowded movie theatre should be protected by the first amendment of the Constitution, correct? Wrong. Because this action has the possibility to result in unnecessary injuries to innocent bystanders, it does not align with the guidelines for freedom of speech that is protected, causing freedom of speech to be limited.

Contrary to what people may think, freedom of speech is not something that is guaranteed in all places that one may be in, even if it does follow the appropriate guidelines. I have known people to lose their jobs for this very reason. My first job was at a summer camp, and during orientation weekend all of the staff signed a contract agreeing to uphold the camp’s good reputation and not to participate in several things such as; illegal activity, consuming alcohol, cursing, sexual acts outside of marriage, smoking, etc., while being employed by the camp during the summer. After the first weekend we had off of work, there were four summer staff members fired. Three had been out drinking, even though they were underaged, and the fourth had posted pictures on social media of him drinking while wearing a staff shirt that displayed the camp’s name. Once the camp management staff was made known of the rules that had been broken, all four staff members were exterminated.

Two of them were fortunate enough to be given a second chance to come back and work. Recognizing their wrong doing, both of them accepted the offer to come back and work at camp. Now, both are outstanding staff members. Companies are not required to hire anyone back and most will probably not be as willing to give their former employees another opportunity after they have abused the original one that they had.

While this could possibly make it seem like freedom of speech is limited, if it is thought about completely, one will realize how free speech actually is. Freedom of speech is only infringed upon when it brings harm to another person, or when it is already agreed upon, like in the contract situation mentioned previously. Citizens only loose their freedom of speech when one of two things happen; the first is that they agree to give up that right, and the second is that it has potential to bring harm to another.

Is there any other speech that should not be allowed?

In America, there is the freedom to like things as well as dislike things, even to the point of hatred. The expression of that is something called ?hate speech.’ It is not defined by U.S. Law, but it is commonly considered to be speech expressing hatred of a particular group of people, whether it is due to that group’s race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other reason.

There are those who think that hate speech should be considered a hate crime because it is said with the intent to harm, even though it would not be harm committed on the physical level. Others still argue that it is not a crime because it is protected by their freedom of speech, and that it does not actually bring harm. The courts have not determined that it is a crime; therefore, is it still currently protected. The freedom to express hate, even when it is the hate of people, is legal as long as it is not acted upon or meant to arouse violence against the group that is hated. Most people would probably agree that ?hate speech’ is not something to just go about expressing just because a person can. While this is something that is legal, it is not something that is to be considered widely acceptable.

In schools and most places of employment hate speech is not allowed. In the work place, it can be seen as discrimination and, more times than not, will result in the termination of an employee. Though it may seem that the freedom of speech should even be protected at a job, it is not always so. Just as the government cannot infringe on a person’s right to speak freely, they cannot determine who can and cannot be fired. Most companies have some form of contract or code of conduct that is agreed upon or signed when an employee is hired, and the rules and regulations in it that can also extend to ones personal life. Just like actions mentioned previously, hate speech, or any other speech, can be grounds for termination if it does not align with the companies policies.

Why is freedom of speech significant?

In many other countries around the world, speaking one’s mind freely is not a right. It is not something protected and guaranteed elsewhere like it is in America. There are people across the globe who fear for their lives when doing any of the things that are mentioned in the first amendment if they do not align with the views and standards set by those who are in power. People do not have the freedom to speak in disagreement with their government, write anything that could lead to the doubting of those in power, or spark the idea of revolution and change for their particular country.

In America we have the freedom to say, I don’t like the way this is happening and here is a potentially better way to go about doing this, without being punished for it or having to fear for our lives. There is an ability to act on beliefs and make things different in our lives. Americans have an amazing freedom that may go unnoticed and can be often times taken for granted.

As someone who has visited both a communist country and a former communist country, I recognize the freedom that I have taken for granted, and I know that people seldom discuss politics or the state of their government and nation all due to their fear of being punished if their ideas are in opposition of those ruling them. It may not be stated in the law, but there can still be consequences for it in many cases. The voice of the people is not truly heard. Though the citizens may be able to vote, it does not necessarily mean that their opinions are really taken into consideration or contribute to the decisions that are made by the government. The freedom Americans have to speak freely, among other freedoms, is something coveted by the citizens of many other countries.

Does popular opinion have any affect on freedom of speech?

When cases enter a court room that are concerned with freedom of speech, there is a principle that the Supreme Court follows called “content neutrality”. This loosely means that just because the majority of the population may not agree with the way a person expressed themself, through symbolic speech or actual speech, it does not mean that the court can say it is not protected under freedom of speech or expression.

In many incidents today with the confederate flag, there are lots of people who feel very strongly that it should be prohibited, like in Castorina v. Madison County School Board (Monroe, 2018). If there were to be a majority of people who think it should no longer be allowed, if it is not violating any guidelines or precedents that have been set, then it the freedom of people to wear or display it cannot be taken away.

So What?

Why does all of this matter? Well, it matters because it is something we use everyday. Every time that you say something, you are using your right go freedom of speech. While people may not always realize when they say something that could have been disallowed if this amendment was not in place, things such as those are said more times than can be counted.

Without the first amendment, Americans lack true freedom. People talk all of the time, and a hot topic to talk about are things concerning the government or things that could be considered “controversial”. The thing that makes them controversial topics is the fact that there are so many different opinions formed on them.

If there were not more than just the government’s opinion, or the opinion of the majority of the population allowed, then America would not be able to rightfully consider itself the home of the free. As a nation, there would not be more than one political party, any religious diversity, and the voices of the citizens would not be heard, if our rights to express any thoughts were prohibited.

In the first amendment there are things included other than freedom of speech; freedom of religion, press, assembly, and petition. How would these things come about if there was not freedom of speech, though? Without the freedom of speech mentioned in the first amendment, the things preceding and following it are meaningless in our society today. Religion cannot truly be free without the freedom to express and practice it. The ability of the press to report without being censored does not have any true value unless what is able to be reported on is also unregulated. The freedom to peacefully assemble is only worthwhile if assemblies can be held for any cause, and the right to be heard through the freedom of petitioning is only a real freedom when citizens can speak openly of their opinions, no matter what they may be.

Speech and expression are things that outwardly show what people think about, care about, support, and have opinions on. Whether what people express is in agreement with what others believe or not, it is still their right to express it and be protected.

Works Cited

  1. Hate Speech. Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, 2018, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hate%20speech
  2. Monroe, James. Civil Rights and Liberties. 2018.
  3. The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. Print. U.S. Constitution. Art. I/Amend. I.
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