What does the First Amendment actually mean? Here is an explanation

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The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, passed in 1791 along with nine other bills including the Bill of Rights three years after the Constitution was ratified, created numerous clauses dealing with multiple purposes.

There have been a number of legal challenges to the First Amendment recently, from The trial of Sarah Palin against the New York Times in a lawsuit accusing Project Veritas, Fox News, the Gateway Pundit, One America News and others of “intentionally promoting and profiting from false allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election”, the New York Times reported.


1. What is the First Amendment?

The First Amendment guarantees the freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and the right to petition, according to Cornell Law School. It prohibits Congress both from promoting one religion over others and from restricting an individual’s religious practices. The amendment further guarantees freedom of speech by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to free speech. Finally, the amendment guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peacefully and to petition their government.

“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of any religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or restricting freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to ask the government for grievance redress,” the amendment reads.

2. Limits of the First Amendment

The First Amendment has certain limitations. Notably, the amendment does not prevent a private employer from setting its own free speech rules, but protects citizens from government limits on speech, according to Middle Tennessee State University.

According to USCourts.govfreedom of expression does not include the right:

  • To incite imminent lawless action;
  • To manufacture or distribute obscene materials;
  • Burn draft cards as a protest against the war;
  • Allowing students to print articles in a school newspaper despite the objections of the school administration;
  • Students making an obscene speech at a school-sponsored event;
  • Students stand up for illegal drug use at a school-sponsored event.

Again, the First Amendment only protects against the government, not against private employers or the consequences of other citizens. There are limits to freedoms in the First Amendment, as the individual rights of people must be weighed against the rights of society, according to the Voice of America.

For example, a person cannot impose the tenets of his religion on others while trying to practice that religion. Likewise, harmful speech, such as shouting “fire” in a crowded room, is not protected speech, nor is publishing a lie that harms someone. Also, different types of speech have different amounts of freedom. Political speech is considered different from commercial speech, which includes advertisements.

According to American Civil Liberties Union, freedom of expression does not preclude punishing behavior that intimidates, harasses or threatens another person, even if words are used. Threatening phone calls are not constitutionally protected, for example.

3. What the First Amendment does

Middle Tennessee State University says the First Amendment prevents the government from asking you to say something you don’t want, or preventing you from hearing or reading the words of others, because you have the right to receive information , even if you never speak or write yourself.

USCourts,gov also states that freedom of speech includes the right:

  • Not to mention, specifically, the right not to salute the flag;
  • That students wear black armbands to school to protest a war because students do not waive their constitutional rights at the school gate, the Supreme Court has found;
  • Use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages;
  • To contribute money, in specific circumstances, to political campaigns;
  • To advertise commercial products and professional services with certain restrictions;
  • Engage in symbolic speech, including the burning of the flag in protest.

The First Amendment also ensures that the government cannot, by “prior restraint”, withhold the publication of any document unless it can prove that it would “certainly” cause “direct, immediate and irreparable harm”. to the nation, the Supreme Court found in U.S. v. New York Times. The public has a “right to know,” the court concluded, which is essential to fully participate in democratic decision-making.

Government claims of “national security” should always be scrutinized to ensure they are valid, according to the ACLU.

4. What about censorship?

Censorship is the removal or banning of words, images or ideas considered offensive, obscene, politically unacceptable or threatening security. According to First Amendment Encyclopedia“Censors seek to limit freedom of thought and expression by restricting speech, printed matter, symbolic messages, freedom of association, books, art, music, films, television programs and websites”.

Government censorship, although it seems to be becoming more common in states like Florida and Texasis unconstitutional, according to Carnegie Library. The First Amendment was extended to states in the 1940s, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. When government, whether federal, state, or local, engages in censorship, it violates First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court is often called upon to ensure that First Amendment rights are protected and could be invoked again in the future.

However, individuals and groups can still practice censorship. As long as government entities are not involved, this type of censorship has no First Amendment implications. This includes censoring popular music, movies, art, and television to exclude words or images that may be considered “vulgar” or “obscene.” Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets may regulate or restrict speech hosted on their platforms as they are private entities.

The Supreme Court previously reaffirmed that the right to receive information is a fundamental right protected by the United States Constitution when it said in Board of Education v. Pico in 1982 that “the right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate for the meaningful exercise by the recipient of his or her own rights of speech, press, and political freedom,” according to the American Library Association.

5. Freedom of expression does not mean absence of consequences

Although everyone has the right to express their own opinions, ideas and views without government interference, according to North Texas Daily, what happens after the statements have been expressed depends on the others. When people express opinions about discrimination, whether it is racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., others may express different opinions and call out people for their negative comments. Individuals may also face backlash for comments made on social media platforms that are derogatory, racist or otherwise discriminatory.

Individuals can be held accountable for their words and actions by entities such as companies or organizations, including their employer. Hate speech and political opinion are not the same thing, according to North Texas Daily, because hate speech causes emotional and mental damage to someone, while political beliefs do not. Calling out someone for making hate speech also falls under a person’s freedom of expression.

People who call out others for harmful and hateful statements are not trying to promote censorship, according to North Texas Daily. Individuals have the right not to tolerate hateful rhetoric and can say things against it. The First Amendment was created to encourage the flow of ideas and communication between people without government interference.

A person who does not like being challenged for their negative comments can stop expressing these comments on public platforms. Once a statement is on a public platform, others have the right to comment on and condemn those statements.

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