The Significance of the First Amendment

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedoms of religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly.1 Most Americans agree that these freedoms are important, but every American should also consider why this amendment is important and whom this amendment protects. For instance, does freedom of religion protect individuals, religious groups, or non-religious people, and why is it important that people can freely worship? For that matter, does this part of the Constitution prohibit the government from ever interacting with religion? The freedoms of religion, press, assembly, petition, and speech established by the First Amendment protect different people, and although these freedoms are vital to the American law system, their extent has been debated and sometimes reinterpreted throughout the years. First, freedom of religion keeps the government from forcing beliefs on religious and secular groups alike, but the supposed “wall of separation between church and state” often associated with this freedom is much more complicated than many people think.2 The First Amendment states that the American government is not allowed to establish an official American church or keep people from following a certain religion. This protects religious groups from governmental oppression and allows people the choice not to associate with any religion. However, this part of the First Amendment is much less straightforward than it seems. In the 1962 Engle v. Vitale case, official school prayers were deemed unconstitutional, but in 1996, the Court ruled in favor of an after-school religious group that wanted to gather in a public school. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), Amish people were permitted to break state laws by skipping high school for religious reasons, but in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990), Native Americans were not permitted to break the law by using drugs in their ceremonies.3 With so many seeming contradictions in these cases, how are Americans to know which religious behaviors will be supported by the government and which will not? This question remains unanswered by the Supreme Court. Second, freedom of the press allows the media to publish works opposing injustice without fear of government punishment. Even when the Constitution was written, newspapers were an important source of information, and today, the media are more prevalent in American politics and culture than ever before. The First Amendment ensures that publishers, reporters, news sites, and other media sources cannot be punished for stances that oppose government actions and decisions. This allows news companies and other forms of media to freely inform the public, speaking out against any unconstitutional or wrong behavior. Again, though, this freedom is open to some interpretation. Media sources can be sued for harmful, false statements such as slander and libel. However, in the 1964 case New York Times Company v. Sullivan, the Court stated that when making statements about public figures and institutions, news sources can make false statements or conjectures if unaware of the statements’ falsity.4 This decision attempts to balance the freedom of the press with the rights of public figures and companies. However, with the increasing amount of subjective, unproved accusations and opinions clouding the modern media, the question should be asked: Does the press’s right to freedom outweigh the importance of the truth? Third, freedom of assembly protects oppressed groups and protesters who want to stand against injustice, in addition to any other groups that gather together. Essentially, this freedom means that as long as a group activity, meeting, or other assembly is not breaking the law, the government cannot intervene in the groups’ activities. Much like freedom of the press, freedom of assembly keeps those who stand against government injustice from punishment. This freedom is also similar to freedom of religion, because both protect religious people from government interference in their services and meetings. Peaceful congregations with others are critical to spreading religious, political, and cultural ideas and movements, and the First Amendment ensures that the government cannot hinder people from participating in these assemblies. The civil rights movement and the suffrage movement both owe much of their success to the right of assembly; without this freedom, the government could have easily shut down these movements before they gained momentum.5 Though most government rulings on this freedom have been reasonable, there is one ruling that could be used to justify undue government interference in assemblies. In Cox v. New Hampshire (1941), the Supreme Court ruled that the government can institute “time, place, and manner restrictions” on large assemblies.6 If applied in a certain context, this case could be used to argue that limiting freedom of assembly is permissible. Fourth, the freedom to petition the government protects anyone who asks the government to fix a problem, right a wrong, or address an injustice. Unlike most other First Amendment freedoms, freedom to petition allows people to take their complaints, perspectives, and issues directly to the government. This freedom makes it very difficult for the government to ignore the people’s pleas; it forces the government to listen to the people it represents and consider the problems they see in society. A case as recent as 2010 dealt with the complexities of this freedom. In Doe #1 v. Reed, the Court decided that releasing the names of petition signers to the public is constitutional, even when the petition signers are uncomfortable with this release. Many, including dissenting Justice Clarence Thomas, believe that releasing such information violates the First Amendment and could lead to harm or harassment for petition signers.7 Finally, freedom of speech is perhaps the most important of these freedoms, because it protects all people in America. The freedoms of press, religion, assembly, and petition all protect certain groups, but freedom of speech protects all Americans, no matter which groups they are or are not part of. This freedom is especially important today. As communication via the internet and technology becomes increasingly common, Americans need the assurance that the government will not prevent people from sending messages, making posts, or otherwise making statements on political or religious opinions. Freedom of speech is vital to the other freedoms granted in the First Amendment: It allows people to speak about religion, to speak or write for the press, to speak out in rallies and gatherings, and to speak to the government via petitions. This freedom also goes beyond the other freedoms, allowing anyone, anywhere in America, to speak. Like all other First Amendment freedoms, this freedom also has led to some debate. Perhaps the most shocking case involving freedom of speech is Brandenburg v. Ohio, a 1969 case in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Ku Klux Klan member’s right to free speech.8 This decision, especially when viewed from a modern perspective, leads to some very serious questions about whether everyone should be allowed free speech. In conclusion, the First Amendment freedoms of religion, press, assembly, petition, and speech protect American people and various groups, but are the center of many debates and questionable court rulings. Freedom of religion protects religious and non-religious people alike from government discrimination, but unpredictable exceptions given to certain religious groups by the government are problematic. Freedom of the press allows members of the media to write and speak freely, but this can come at the cost of objectivity in journalism. Freedom of assembly allows groups to peacefully gather without government interference, but the Cox v. New Hampshire ruling could threaten this freedom. While the freedom to petition allows people to address government officials directly, the release of petition signers’ names makes many uncomfortable. Finally, freedom of speech allows all Americans to speak their opinions and beliefs, even though this is not always a good thing. All in all, the freedoms granted by the First Amendment are some of the most important freedoms granted to the people of the United States, which is why it is so important that the government address the problems with these rights, clarify the laws regarding them, and take care when interpreting this amendment in the future.

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