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The Constitution of the United States of America is a written document that took effect in 1789. It sets out the principles by which the new nation was to be governed. The founding fathers were keen to preserve the principle of individual freedom and so they enshrined in law certain limits on the role and scope of the federal government. A series of amendments have been added to the Constitution over the years, each one designed to clarify the role of government in particular circumstances. The first ten amendments together comprise the American Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees American citizens a series of basic rights. These are the freedom to practise a religion of your choosing, the freedom to speak freely, the freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble for a common purpose and the freedom to petition government on a cause close to your heart. Together these freedoms are termed ‘freedom of expression’.
The First Amendment, therefore, ensures that no government can legislate to remove any of these basic freedoms. By protecting the freedom of the individual and also limiting the power of the federal government, this amendment clearly established the principles for the future governance of the United States.
The First Amendment seems to be quite clear in setting out the basic freedoms enjoyed by individuals. However, as time has passed and changes and developments occurred, it has been necessary for courts and legislators to make clear exactly what is protected and what is not. The interpretation of the First Amendment has led to landmark court cases and subsequent legislation to ensure that it is up-to-date.
One area where doubts have been expressed is in relation to religion. Were the founding fathers concerned only with established religions at that time? Were they only considering the various factions within the Christian religion? Did they grant religious freedom to all, even if the religion in question was unusual? For example, do cults enjoy the same freedom as the main religions? The Supreme Court has on several ocasions ruled on matters relating to religious freedom, although some say, not always consistently.
The Supreme Court in the US has in the past guaranteed political free speech. The protection offered by its decisions ensure that the government cannot interfere to limit the right to express political opinions. The areas where the Supreme Court admits government interference is legitimate are inciting illegal acts, inciting violence, obscene language and pornography, symbolic means of expression (for example, burning draft cards) and commercial expression. This last one allows government to legislate to protect consumers from misleading advertisements.
Similar conventions cover the freedom of the press, The Supreme Court has moved in the past to protect the rights of the press to publish material that might be libellous. It is up to the injured party to prove that the statements made were not true and that they were published maliciously. The governemnt is only permitted to step in an prevent publication of any item if it can be proved there is ‘clear and present danger’ to national security by its appearing in print.