The First Amendment to the United States Constitution Explained

First Amendment
The 1st Amendment guarantees 5 basic freedoms.

1st 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.

1st Amendment?

The United States Constitution 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 with the First Amendment. So they enshrined in law certain limits on the role and scope of the federal government.

Woman at protest
Freedom of speech is protected by the United States Constitution.

Freedoms and Amendments

A series of amendments have been added to the Constitution over the years, each designed to clarify the government’s role in certain circumstances. The first ten amendments together comprise the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment protects freedoms such as free speechreligious freedom, and press freedom.

Guaranteed Freedoms in the First Amendment

The 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees American citizens’ basic rights.

These are:

  • the freedom to practice a religion of your choosing
  • the freedom to speak freely
  • the freedom of the press
  • the freedom to assemble for a common purpose
  • the freedom to petition the government

Together these freedoms are termed ‘freedoms of expression.’

Journalist taking notes
Freedom of the press in the United States is legally protected by the First Amendment.

No government can remove freedom of expression

The First Amendment ensures that no government can legislate to remove these basic freedoms.

The First Amendment established the principles for the United States’ future governance by protecting the individual right to freedom of expression and limiting the federal government’s power.

The First Amendment is reasonably clear in setting out the basic freedoms individuals enjoy.

A march for equal rights
Peaceful protest is another freedom of expression protected by the Constitution.

However, as time has passed and changes and developments occurred, it has been necessary for courts and legislators to go into greater detail on exactly what is protected and what is not.

The 1st Amendment interpretation has led to landmark court cases and subsequent legislation to ensure it is up-to-date.

Freedom of Religion

One area where doubts have been expressed about the interpretation of the First Amendment is concerning religion.

Were the Founding Fathers, such as James Madison, concerned only with established religions at that time?

Portrait of James Madison
Founding Father James Madison

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, should cults enjoy the same freedom as the main religions?

The Supreme Court has ruled on religious freedom matters on several occasions, although some say not always consistently.

Freedom of Speech

In the past, the United States Supreme Court has guaranteed political free speech due to the 1st Amendment.

The protection of political speech offered by its decisions ensures that the government cannot interfere to limit the right to express political opinions.

United States Supreme Court
United States Supreme Court.

The areas where the Supreme Court admits government interference is legitimate are inciting illegal acts, inciting violence, hate speech, obscene language, pornography, other obscene material, symbolic means of expression (for example, burning draft cards), and commercial speech.

This last one allows the government to legislate to protect consumers from misleading advertisements.

Freedom of the Press

Similar conventions brought by the First Amendment cover press freedom and the enforcement of censorship.

Newspaper stack
Freedom of the press extends to the right to publish material that might be libelous.

The United States Supreme Court has moved in the past to protect the press’s rights to publish material that might be libelous. It is up to the injured party to prove that the statements were false and were published maliciously.

The government is only permitted to step in and prevent the publication of any item if it can be proven there is a ‘clear and present danger’ to national security by appearing in print.

4 Responses

  1. A couple of typos on this sentence : 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.

  2. It’s interesting you “omit” the term “peaceably assemble.”
    Do you question the term “peaceably?” Try Webster’s, Standard Version.
    Arson, breaking and interring, theft, destruction of property, assault, do not, in any manner, encompass
    peaceful assembly.
    The willful destruction of this Republic lies at the feet of the Press, twisting the first amendment into a pretzel.
    Lets follow this thought:
    The Constitution was written to protect, and defend, We The People.
    Does “Freedom Of The Press Shall Not e Abridged’ cover obfuscation and lying?

  3. The concept of freedom of religion by definition also includes the freedom FROM religion. I have the right to not be impacted by any religion that wants to enact laws based upon their particular religion’s creeds or literature.
    Any law that is based upon a religious text or concept should be automatically voided by the courts.

    And this is me using my First Amendment right of freedom of political speech to say so.

  4. Nor do you have free exercise of Religion, as the Bible Jesus said to be armed, in Luke 22:36 yet you can be arrested in many states, like California if you even open carry a gun for protection.
    So much for the “Free exercise of Religion”.

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