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.
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.
Guaranteed Freedoms in the First Amendment
The 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees American citizens’ basic rights.
- 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.’
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.