The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the freedom of speech, religion and the press. It also protects the right to peaceful protest and to petition the government. The amendment was adopted in 1791 along with nine other amendments that make up the Bill of Rights—a written document protecting civil liberties under U.S. law. The meaning of the First Amendment has been the subject of continuing interpretation and dispute over the years. Landmark Supreme Court cases have dealt with the right of citizens to protest U.S. involvement in foreign wars, flag burning and the publication of classified government documents.
Bill of Rights
During the summer of 1787, a group of politicians, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, gathered in Philadelphia to draft a new U.S. Constitution.
Antifederalists, led by the first governor of Virginia, Patrick Henry, opposed the ratification of the Constitution. They felt the new constitution gave the federal government too much power at the expense of the states. They further argued that the Constitution lacked protections for people’s individual rights.
The debate over whether to ratify the Constitution in several states hinged on the adoption of a Bill of Rights that would safeguard basic civil rights under the law. Fearing defeat, pro-constitution politicians, called Federalists, promised a concession to the antifederalists—a Bill of Rights.
James Madison drafted most of the Bill of Rights. Madison was a Virginia representative who would later become the fourth president of the United States. He created the Bill of Rights during the 1st United States Congress, which met from 1789 to 1791 – the first two years that President George Washington was in office.
The Bill of Rights, which was introduced to Congress in 1789 and adopted on December 15, 1791, includes the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
First Amendment Text
The First Amendment text reads:
“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.”
While the First Amendment protected freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition, subsequent amendments under the Bill of Rights dealt with the protection of other American values including the Second Amendment right to bear arms and the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.
Freedom of Speech
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. Freedom of speech gives Americans the right to express themselves without having to worry about government interference. It’s the most basic component of freedom of expression.
The U.S. Supreme Court often has struggled to determine what types of speech is protected. Legally, material labeled as obscene has historically been excluded from First Amendment protection, for example, but deciding what qualifies as obscene has been problematic. Speech provoking actions that would harm others—true incitement and/or threats—is also not protected, but again determining what words have qualified as true incitement has been decided on a case-by-case basis.
Freedom of the Press
This freedom is similar to freedom of speech, in that it allows people to express themselves through publication.
There are certain limits to freedom of the press. False or defamatory statements—called libel—aren’t protected under the First Amendment.
Freedom of Religion
The First Amendment, in guaranteeing freedom of religion, prohibits the government from establishing a “state” religion and from favoring one religion over any other.
While not explicitly stated, this amendment establishes the long-established separation of church and state.
Right to Assemble, Right to Petition
The First Amendment protects the freedom to peacefully assemble or gather together or associate with a group of people for social, economic, political or religious purposes. It also protects the right to protest the government.
The right to petition can mean signing a petition or even filing a lawsuit against the government.
First Amendment Court Cases
Here are landmark Supreme Court decisions related to the First Amendment.
Free Speech & Freedom of the Press:
Schenck v. United States, 1919: In this case, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Socialist Party activist Charles Schenck after he distributed fliers urging young men to dodge the draft during World War I.
The Schenck decision helped define limits of freedom of speech, creating the “clear and present danger” standard, explaining when the government is allowed to limit free speech. In this case, the Supreme Court viewed draft resistance as dangerous to national security.
New York Times Co. v. United States, 1971: This landmark Supreme Court case made it possible for The New York Times and Washington Post newspapers to publish the contents of the Pentagon Papers without risk of government censorship.
The Pentagon Papers were a top-secret Department of Defense study of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Published portions of the Pentagon Papers revealed that the presidential administrations of Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson had all misled the public about the degree of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Texas v. Johnson, 1990: Gregory Lee Johnson, a youth communist, burned a flag during the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas to protest the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
The Supreme Court reversed a Texas court’s decision that Johnson broke the law by desecrating the flag. This Supreme Court Case invalidated statutes in Texas and 47 other states prohibiting flag-burning.
Freedom of Religion:
Reynolds v. United States (1878): This Supreme Court case upheld a federal law banning polygamy, testing the limits of religious liberty in America. The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment forbids government from regulating belief but not from actions such as marriage.
Braunfeld v. Brown (1961): The Supreme Court upheld a Pennsylvania law requiring stores to close on Sundays, even though Orthodox Jews argued the law was unfair to them since their religion required them to close their stores on Saturdays as well.
Sherbert v. Verner (1963): The Supreme Court ruled that states could not require a person to abandon their religious beliefs in order to receive benefits. In this case, Adell Sherbert, a Seventh-day Adventist, worked in a textile mill. When her employer switched from a five-day to six-day workweek, she was fired for refusing to work on Saturdays. When she applied for unemployment compensation, a South Carolina court denied her claim.
Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971): This Supreme Court decision struck down a Pennsylvania law allowing the state to reimburse Catholic schools for the salaries of teachers who taught in those schools. This Supreme Court case established the “Lemon Test” for determining when a state or federal law violates the Establishment Clause—that’s the part of the First Amendment that prohibits the government from declaring or financially supporting a state religion.
Ten Commandments Cases (2005): In 2005, the Supreme Court came to seemingly contradictory decisions in two cases involving the display of the Ten Commandments on public property. In the first case, Van Orden v. Perry, the Supreme Court ruled that the display of a six-foot Ten Commandments monument at the Texas State Capital was constitutional. In McCreary County v. ACLU, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that two large, framed copies of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky courthouses violated the First Amendment.
Right to Assemble & Right to Petition:
NAACP v. Alabama (1958): When Alabama Circuit Court ordered the NAACP to stop doing business in the state and subpoenaed the NAACP for records including their membership list, the NAACP brought the matter to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in favor of the NAACP, which Justice John Marshall Harlan II writing: “This Court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one's associations.”
Edwards v. South Carolina (1962): On March 2, 1961, 187 Black students marched from Zion Baptist Church to the South Carolina State House, where they were arrested and convicted of breaching the peace. The Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision to reverse the convictions, arguing that the state infringed on the free speech, free assembly and freedom to petition of the students.
The Bill of Rights; White House.
History of the First Amendment; The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Schenck v. United States; C-Span.