The First Amendment Essay

“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. ” (Bill of Rights) The First Amendment, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, was put into force on the 15th of December, 1791. The Bill of Rights declares ten Amendments that protect US citizens’ basic rights and civil liberties; one of which is the right to have freedom of speech, and gives the same to the Fourth Estate – the press and media.

This Amendment also allows the people to assemble to protest, create petitions, and prohibits Congress to pass laws that establish specific religion in the United States. Freedom of speech is being able to articulate and express your thoughts and opinions without having to face censorship or societal sanctions. According to Nancy L. Stair, the colonists were originally in favor of establishing the right to freedom of speech in the Bill of Rights because they were previously limited in the ways they could complain about how the British authority treated them.

This right would protect the people’s ability to express their thoughts and opinions freely, without facing consequence. Having this ability lets them form and shape their government the way they want to. The way we interpret the First Amendment has really changed since the Amendments were drafted. The original First Amendment focuses solely on freedom of speech in public and in media, but our understanding of this has changed – there are so many more outlets for expressing our opinions in modern times, ranging from the internet, public protests, advertising, student expression in public schools and even bumper stickers on cars.

In what way has our interpretation of this right changed over 200 years? The majority of Supreme Court cases in the early 20th century were regarding the right to freedom of speech. This is due to major ongoing social upheavals at the time – “massive late 19th century immigration movements, World Warl and the spread of socialism in the United States. ” (First Amendment Center) The Amendment, and generally the rest of the Bill of Rights, is written very vaguely and briefly – it doesn’t delve into detail of the nuances within the right.

This makes it possible for the Supreme Court and the public to interpret the Amendment in their own way. Although it is not written in the actual Amendment, it has been established that our right to free speech does not allow us to express something with bad intentions or malice towards someone else, which would cause them harm. In the case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, the Education Board of West Virginia made a regulation that saluting the American flag must be part of the program of activities in all state public schools.

The regulation required all faculty, staff and pupils to honor the flag. Refusing to do so was considered “insubordination” (West Virginia State Board of Education) and the punishments were expulsion and charges of delinquency. The jury’s final verdict for this case won with a majority of 6-to-3 in favor of Barnette – the compulsory salute of the flag was declared unconstitutional. Whilst writing for the winning majority for the case, Justice Jackson argued that “[i]f here is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. ” (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette) One of the most noteworthy Supreme Court cases dealing with the right of freedom of speech was Schenck v. United States, in 1919.

It involved an official of the Socialist Party, Charles Schenck, who was arrested for distributing pamphlets encouraging draftees to refuse military service during World War I. This action was a clear violation of the Espionage act, which made to “cause, or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or… [to] willfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States. ” (Espionage Act of 1917) illegal.

With no recent cases to guide the decision, most expected “the Court to draw upon the older understandings of the First Amendment—that is, it would define free speech as protection only from prior restraint and it would defend the conviction of Schenck using the bad tendency test. These forecasts proved only half true. The Court did define free speech as primarily protection from prior restraint, but in the opinion written by Justice Holmes the Court introduced a new test for setting government restrictions on speech.

Justice Holmes and a unanimous court vote concluded that Schenck is not protected by the First Amendment in this case, because it would otherwise be unlawful under the Espionage Act. “The character of every act depends on the circumstances. ‘The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. ‘ During wartime, utterances tolerable in peacetime can be punished. ” (Schenck v. United States, Oyez)

In conclusion, the right to free speech is incredibly important because it’s a right that everyone exercises on a daily basis, regardless of age, race or gender. Freedom of speech is also important because it is absolutely crucial in any democracy. The government of the United States has been formed as a democracy – it’s been instilled as one of our main values and principles since the beginning. Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that “freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth. “