(RepublicanReport.com) – The First Amendment is an incredibly important part of the US Constitution. Not only does it play an integral role in the democratic process, but it also enshrines a total of five critically important, inalienable rights and freedoms for the American people. Let’s explore what these rights are, and why they matter so much.
The First Amendment
As it exists within the Constitution today, the First Amendment reads:
“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.”
Bear in mind that this is written in the kind of “legalese” required for legislative documents. It is not necessarily written to be friendly to the average learner; even legal experts sometimes disagree on how to interpret it. You’ll find a plain English explanation of each right and/or freedom it protects throughout the next few sections.
Freedom of Religion
You have the right to believe in the religion of your choice without interference on the part of the government. This includes the right to observe religious practices, such as holy days, as well as the right to change religions if you so choose. It also includes “freedom from religion,” should you happen to be atheist or agnostic.
“Government interference,” here, typically refers to the creation of new laws that favor or punish one religion over another. For example, Congress cannot establish a national church, make observing your religion illegal, or enact tertiary laws that indirectly prevent you from practicing your religion — even if you practice in public and others disagree with you.
There are a few exceptions to Freedom of Religion. Primarily, the government does have the right to step in and halt your practice if and when it threatens lives or causes harm. Polygamy and ritual sacrifice, for example, are legal to believe in, but illegal to practice.
Freedom of Speech
You have the right to speak your mind and share your opinions, even if others vehemently disagree with you, without interference from the government. This includes the right to abstain from speech altogether as well as the right to share your opinions in print (including online).
“Government interference,” here, typically means that no legislative body or official, including Congress, can make it illegal for you to criticize the government or share an opinion. But they also cannot enact laws that amount to censorship or punishment for the same, either. You have the right to speak your mind without fear of persecution at all times.
Exceptions to Freedom of Speech exist where words, or shared opinions, may present a “clear and present danger” to the country or the American people. For example, you cannot threaten to kill someone, no matter how much you dislike them — threats of harm are still illegal. Some types of racism and/or sexism are also believed to cause harm; thus, they are not protected.
Another excellent example is the case Schenck v. United States (1919). At the time, socialists Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer stood accused of distributing flyers that encouraged people to avoid the draft. The justice system found that, by doing so, they had interfered with wartime authority and military recruitment, potentially putting lives at risk. It was determined that their flyers were not protected because of how likely they were to cause harm.
Freedom of the Press
The press — or any individual serving in such a role — has the right to share opinions, facts, and/or the news without fear of censorship from the government. This includes the right to share information that criticizes the government and/or paints the current administration in a negative light. It also prevents Congress, once again, from enacting laws that interfere with Freedom of the Press.
In practice, it’s similar to Freedom of Speech. The only tangible difference is that the press and/or its members receive the right, rather than an individual — but the overall goal is different. Freedom of Speech aims to allow shared opinions and criticisms, while Freedom of the Press prevents the government from manipulating or cherry-picking what news they want you to see.
Exceptions to Freedom of the Press are once again centered around preventing harm to the American people. For example, media outlets cannot publish false facts about an individual, business, or entity. This is considered libel, and they may be sued for it.
Congress also has the right to enact laws that limit the press from sharing information that presents a “clear and present danger” to the American people. This includes instructions on how to break the law (e.g., making a bomb) as well as threats, obscene images of children, and certain forms of targeted discrimination.
The Right to Assemble and Petition
Neither Congress nor any other governmental body has the right to prevent the American people from peaceful assembly and/or petitioning of the government. This includes the right to protest the government and its actions. Or, to simplify, you have the right to protest any issue at any time as long as you don’t become violent while you do it. This has become a critical issue in recent years.
To understand why the right to assemble is so important, one only needs to glance at countries where the government has all but made protesting illegal. Tyrannical leaders may do so to stem the flow of negative information and control an angry populace. This limits awareness and effectively prevents the people from standing up for themselves.
The right to assemble is NOT absolute. The government does have the right to create rules that dictate when and where one can protest — and they can step in if the situation escalates beyond control. For example, you do not have the right to assemble in a place that blocks traffic, puts others at risk, or otherwise causes harm.
We’ve seen this very issue unfold in recent years, as protests throughout the country repeatedly devolve into violent riots. Congress, or state-level governments, may step in and enact a curfew in response. This is not a violation of the right to assemble in any way.
The US Constitution is absolute; it enacts supreme laws from which no person or entity is exempt. But that doesn’t mean that the interpretation of its amendments can’t change. In truth, the First Amendment is more hotly debated in today’s society than it perhaps ever was. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it falls under free speech, too.
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