The First Amendment to the Constitution is part of a collection of legislature known as the Bill of Rights. While the Constitution was designed to consolidate power into the federal government, there was a faction of lawmakers who feared the type of centralized power that the Constitution gave to the federal government. In response, James Madison, a fervent Anti-Federalist, crafted the Bill of Rights. The rights in this text were designed to protect individuals and their freedoms against the overreach of government power.
The First Amendment itself is a complicated and fascinating piece of literature. The language of the text is as follows:
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.1
Broken down, the First Amendment protects the individual citizen’s five freedoms: the right to freedom of religion (separated into the “Establishment Clause” and the “Exercise Clause”), the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and right to petition. Originally this amendment only prohibited Congress’s actions to limit these rights; however, a series of court cases have both extended and limited these freedoms over time.
As written, the clauses in their most literal form protect the rights of citizens and states against government overreach. The Establishment and Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment protect citizens both from having to follow laws that would infringe on their right to practice their chosen religion and the enforcement of a federal religion. The Freedom of Speech Clause protects citizens from having their expression infringed upon by the government. The Press Clause protects from infringement of expression for sources of media such as newspapers, news stations, and other such mediums. The Assembly Clause protects the citizens’ rights to peaceably assemble and the Petition Clause allows for citizens to ask the government to “right a wrong or correct a problem.”2
But how does this amendment actually affect the average person? There are the standard protections granted by the amendment, but it also has limitations. Often there can be misunderstandings as to what is considered a Constitutional issue or protection and what is not.
Let us first consider the religion section of the text. Free Exercise allows for a citizen to be religious in a way that corroborates with their beliefs. Establishment prevents the government from creating a state religion. Does that mean that the law then cannot affect any action justified by religious belief? Well, no. While the Court cannot regulate any religious belief, it can and does regulate the certain practices of these beliefs if they are considered a prevalent danger to the society.3
In terms of speech and press expression, the amendment allows for a diverse community of opinions and different avenues through which to express them. This expression of opinion is not unlimited. In relation to governmental suppression of speech and the press, the Court has determined that “obscenity, fighting words, defamation, child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to imminent lawless action, true threats, solicitations to commit crimes, and plagiarism of copyrighted material” do not count as protected speech.4 Outside of the government, the speech and press clause tends to not be applicable. As an example, if a person posted something on social media and has that content removed, it is not a violation of their First Amendment rights. Private organizations like the ones that run social media sites are not regulated but the Constitution or its amendments.
Finally, we can consider the Petition and Assembly Clauses of the text. While the freedom to petition the government and gather in support of a viewpoint is explicit in these clauses, any level of government can place restrictions on the logistics of assembly, so long as it does not prevent the assembly from taking place. Consider for a moment a person who wants to arrange a protest on an issue they care deeply about. The government can issue a permit for the protest and even assign a fine so long as it is for logistical reasons and is not reflective of the popularity or unpopularity of their respective opinions.5
So why care? What about this really old document matters right now? Social activism isn’t new. These five freedoms were written in reaction to the institutional injustices that led to the American Revolution. These were rights that the Founding Fathers wanted ingrained into our system because of how important they are. Now, as social media and the global political climate have sparked more and more cohesive activism, it’s important to know how to best use these freedoms for the benefit of our society and those who will come after us.
For more information on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Amendments:
Julianna DeMicco holds a dual B.A. degree from Binghamton University in philosophy, politics, and law, and in English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, Julianna is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. Her scholarly interests in literature have led her to focus on Medieval and Early Renaissance poetry. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese, while also focusing on leadership and community service work. Julianna began at Agape Editions as an undergraduate intern, and now manages the Agape Blog and is currently at work penning a column about the Bill of Rights as a piece of literature with acute contemporary significance.