The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






First Amendment to the United States Constitution

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is a part of the Bill of Rights. Textually, it prevents the U.S. Congress from infringing on six rights. These guarantees were that the Congress would not:

The First Amendment, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, was proposed by Congress in 1789, to be ratified by the requisite number of states in 1791. As with the remaining Amendments of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment was passed in order to answer protestations that the newly created Constitution did not include sufficient guarantees of civil liberties.

The First Amendment only explicitly disallows any of the rights from being abridged by Congress. Over time, however, the courts held that this extends to the executive and judicial branches. The Court has held that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the First Amendment against the actions of the states.



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.

Establishment of religion

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment plainly prohibits the establishment of a national religion by Congress or the preference of one religion over another. Prior to the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court generally took the position that the substantive protections of the Bill of Rights did not apply to actions by state governments. Subsequently, under the "incorporation doctrine", certain selected provisions were applied to states. It was not, however, until the middle and later years of the twentieth century that the Supreme Court began to interpret the establishment and free exercise clauses in such a manner as to reduce substantially the promotion of religion by state governments. (For example, in the Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet , Justice David Souter concluded that "government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.")

Financial assistance

The Supreme Court first considered the question of financial assistance to religious organizations in Bradfield v. Roberts (1899). The federal government had funded a hospital operated by a Roman Catholic institution. In that case, the Court ruled that the funding was to a secular organization—the hospital—and was therefore permissible.

In the twentieth century, however, the Supreme Court has more closely scrutinized government activity involving religious institutions. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court recognized the validity of a New Jersey statute funding student transportation to schools, whether parochial or not. Justice Hugo Black held,

The "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect "a wall of separation between church and State."

Despite these stringent requirements, the New Jersey law was upheld, for it applied "to all its citizens without regard to their religious belief."

The Jefferson quotation cited in Black's opinion is from a letter which Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut (who were formerly taxed to support the established church in the state), that the establishment clause erected "a wall of separation between church and state." Critics of Black's reasoning (most notably, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist) has argued that James Madison, not Jefferson, was the principal drafter of the Bill of Rights and that a majority of states did have "official" churches at the time of its adoption.

In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Supreme Court ruled that government may not "excessively entangle" with religion, for instance by funding the latter. The case involved two state laws: one permitting religious schools to pay for the use of public school services in secular fields, and the other permitting the state to pay a percentage of the salaries of private school teachers, including teachers in religious institutions. The Supreme Court found that the government was "excessively entangled" with religion, and thereby invalidated the statutes in question. The excessive entanglement test, together with the secular purpose and primary effect tests (vide infra), form the Lemon test, which judges often use to test the constitutionality of a statute on establishment clause grounds.

The Supreme Court decided Committee for Public Education & Religious Liberty v. Nyquist and Sloan v. Lemon in 1973. In both cases, states—New York and Pennsylvania—had enacted laws whereby public tax revenues would be paid to low-income parents so as to permit them to send students to private schools. It was held that in both cases, the state unconstitutionally provided aid to religious organizations. The ruling was partially reversed in Mueller v. Allen (1983). There, the Court upheld a Minnesota statute permitting the use of tax revenues to reimburse parents of students. The Court noted that the Minnesota statute granted such aid to parents of all students, whether they attended public or private schools.

While the Court has prevented states from financially aiding parochial schools, it has not stopped them from aiding religious colleges and universities. In Tilton v. Richardson (1971), the Court permitted the use of public funds for the construction of facilities in religious institutions of higher learning. It was found that there was no "excessive entanglement" since the buildings were themselves not religious, unlike teachers in parochial schools, and the aid came in the form of a one-time grant, rather than continuous assistance.

One of the largest recent controversies over the amendment centered on school vouchers—government aid for students to attend private (often religious) schools. The Supreme Court, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), upheld the constitutionality of private school vouchers, turning away an Establishment Clause challenge. Voucher advocates have been somewhat disappointed by state responses to the decision, as they have had little success in convincing state legislators to go forward with voucher programs.

School prayer

Earl Warren was Chief Justice when Engel v. Vitale was decided.
Earl Warren was Chief Justice when Engel v. Vitale was decided.

Further important decisions came in the 1960s, during the Warren Court era. One of the Court's most controversial decisions came in Engel v. Vitale, decided in 1962. The case involved a prayer written by the New York Board of Regents. Though the prayer was non-denominational, the Supreme Court deemed it necessary to strike it down. Justice Black wrote, "it is no part of the official business of government to compose official prayers for any group of American people to recite as part of a religious program carried out by the Government." The reading of the Lord's Prayer or of the Bible in the classroom of a public schools by the teacher was ruled unconstitutional in 1963. The ruling did not apply to parochial or private schools in general. The decision has been criticized by many, including Justice William H. Rehnquist, especially evangelical Protestants.

In Abington Township v. Schempp, the case involving the reading of the Lord's Prayer in class, the Supreme Court introduced the "secular purpose" and "primary effect" tests, which were to be used to determine compatibility with the establishment clause. Essentially, the law in question must have a valid secular purpose, and its primary effect must not be to promote or inhibit a particular religion. Since the law requiring the recital of the Lord's Prayer violated these tests, it was struck down. The "excessive entanglement" test was added in Lemon v. Kurtzman (vide supra).

In Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), the Supreme Court struck down an Alabama law whereby students in public schools would observe daily a period of silence for the purpose of private prayer. The Court did not, however, find that the moment of silence was itself unconstitutional. Rather, it ruled that Alabama lawmakers had passed the statute solely to advance religion, thereby violating the secular purpose test.

The 1990s were marked by controversies surrounding religion's role in public affairs. In Lee v. Wesiman (1992), the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the offering of prayers by religious officials before voluntarily attended ceremonies such as graduation. Thus, the Court established that the state could not conduct religious exercises at public occasions even if attendance was not strictly compulsory. In Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), the Court ruled that even a vote of the student body could not authorize student-led prayer prior to school events.

In 2002, controversy centered on a ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Newdow v. United States Congress (2002), which struck down a California law providing for the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (which includes the phrase "under God") in classrooms. Each House of Congress passed resolutions reaffirming their support for the pledge; the Senate vote was 99–0 and the House vote was 416–3. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case, but did not rule on the merits, creating a new principle of "prudential standing", questioning Newdow's custody claims over his daughter, which the Court found to be too weak to allow Newdow to file lawsuits, a principle just narrow enough to allow the Court to reverse the Court of Appeals under heavy political pressure, without ruling on the substance of the case.

Religious displays

The inclusion of religious symbols in public holiday displays came before the Supreme Court in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), and again in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU (1989). In the former case, the Court upheld the public display of a crèche, ruling that any benefit to religion was "indirect, remote, and incidental." In Allegheny County, however, the Court struck down a crèche display, which occupied a prominent position in the county courthouse and bore the words Gloria in Excelsis Deo, the words sung by the angels at the Nativity (Luke 2:14 in the Latin Vulgate translation). At the same time, the Allegheny County Court upheld the display of a nearby menorah, which appeared along with a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty, reasoning that "the combined display of the tree, the sign, and the menorah...simply recognizes that both Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter-holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society."

A recent controversy surrounded Roy Moore, former Chief Justice of Alabama. Moore had in 2001 installed a monument to the Ten Commandments in the state judicial building. In 2003, he was ordered by a federal judge to remove the monument, but he refused to comply, ultimately leading to his removal from office. He argued that his right to acknowledge God was denied. It may be pointed out, however, that he retained his right to acknowledge God as a private person. It was only a violation of the establishment clause to erect a religious monument on government property; Moore was free to maintain that monument on private land. Interestingly, the Court refused to hear the case. In fact, since its 1980 per curiam decision in Stone v. Graham, the Court has steadfastly refused to involve itself in any of the frequent legal battles over government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments, leading to some disagreement among the United States Courts of Appeals over the constitutionality of such displays.

It is worth noting that the Supreme Court itself has several depictions of the Ten Commandments. The pieces of art containing these depictions are meant to show the historical significance of the commandments alongside other influential laws from numerous cultural backgrounds. None of the depictions contains the full text of the Ten Commandments, although one does partially show commandments six through ten in Hebrew.[1]

Free exercise of religion

The free exercise clause has often been interpreted to include two freedoms: the freedom to believe, and the freedom to act. The former liberty is absolute, while the latter often faces state restriction. Jehovah's Witnesses, a religious group, was often the target of such restriction. Several cases involving the Witnesses permitted the Court to expound the free exercise clause. The Warren Court adopted an extremely liberal view of the clause, the "compelling interest" doctrine (whereby a state must show a compelling interest in restricting religion-related activities), but later decisions have reduced the scope of this interpretation.

Jehovah's Witnesses cases

During the twentieth century, many major cases involving the free exercise clause related to Jehovah's Witnesses. Many communities directed laws against the Witnesses and their attempts to convert individuals to their religion. From 1938 to 1955, the organization was involved in over forty cases before the Supreme Court, winning a majority of them. The first important victory came in 1938, when in Lovell v. City of Griffin , the Supreme Court held that cities could not require permits for the distribution of pamphlets. In 1939, the Supreme Court decided Schneider v. Town of Irvington , in which it struck down anti-littering laws that were enforced only against Jehovah's Witnesses who were handing out pamphlets. In 1940, the Court considered Cantwell v. Connecticut ; the plaintiff, a Jehovah's Witness, was charged with soliciting donations without a certificate from the Public Welfare Council. The Council was to grant the certificate only if the organization requesting it was a charity or sponsored a religious cause. The Supreme Court ruled that any law granting a public body the function of determining if a cause is religious or not violates the First Amendment.

The year 1940, however, was also marked by a loss for the Jehovah's Witnesses, in the case of Minersville School District v. Gobitis (the latter name was actually "Gobitas," but was misspelled by a clerk). The Minersville School Board had contended that the refusal of Gobitas' children to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance constituted insubordination, and then expelled them. Gobitas charged that his children's faith required them to salute none but God. Two courts ruled against the School Board after Gobitas sued, but the Supreme Court disagreed in an eight to one vote. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote that religion "does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities." He added that the flag "is the symbol of our national unity, transcending all internal differences."

The ruling in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, however, did not stand for long. In 1943, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court essentially reversed its previous opinion. Justice Frankfurter had, in the Gobitis case, suggested that the Witnesses attempt to reverse the School Board's policy by exercising their vote. In the Barnette case, however, Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote, "the very purpose of the Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities ... One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote." The Supreme Court did not rule that the Pledge was unconstitutional; rather, they held that students may not be compelled to recite it.

Compelling interest

The Supreme Court under Earl Warren adopted an expansive view of the free exercise clause. The Court required that states have a "compelling interest" in refusing to accommodate religiously motivated conduct as it decided Sherbert v. Verner in 1963. The case involved Adele Sherbert, an individual who was denied unemployment benefits by South Carolina because she refused to work on Saturdays as required by her Seventh Day Adventist faith. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Court ruled that a law that "unduly burdens the practice of religion" without a compelling interest, even though it might be "neutral on its face," would be unconstitutional.

The "compelling interest" doctrine became much narrower in 1990, when the Supreme Court held in Oregon Employment Division v. Smith that, as long as a law does not target a particular religious practice, it is constitutional insofar as the free exercise clause is concerned. In 1993, the Supreme Court revisited the free exercise clause when it decided Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. Hialeah had passed an ordinance banning ritual slaughter, a practice central to the Santería religion, while providing exceptions for some practices such as the kosher slaughter of Judaism. Since the ordinance was not "generally applicable," the Court ruled that it was subject to the compelling interest test, which it failed to meet. The Court therefore struck down the City's ordinance.

Also in 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sought to restore the "compelling interest" standard. In City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), however, the Court struck down the provisions of the Act which forced states and local governments to provide more protections than required by the First Amendment. The Act, however, remains applicable to the federal government, which must therefore still meet the "compelling interest" standard in free exercise cases.

Freedom of speech


Remarkably, the Supreme Court did not consider a single case in which it was asked to strike down a federal law on the basis of the free speech clause until the twentieth century. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were never ruled upon by the Supreme Court, and even the leading critics of the law, Jefferson and Madison, argued for the laws unconstitutionality on the basis of the Tenth Amendment, not the First Amendment.

After World War I, several cases involving laws limiting speech came before the Supreme Court. The Espionage Act of 1917 imposed a maximum sentence of twenty years for anyone who caused or attempted to cause "insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States." Under the Act, over two thousand prosecutions were commenced. For instance, one filmmaker was sentenced to ten years imprisonment because his portrayal of British soldiers in a movie about the American Revolution impugned the good faith of an American ally, the United Kingdom. The Sedition Act of 1918 went even farther, criminalizing "disloyal," "scurrilous" or "abusive" language against the government.

The Supreme Court was for the first time requested to strike down a law violating the free speech clause in 1919. The case involved Charles Schenck, who had during the war published leaflets challenging the conscription system then in effect. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld Schenck's conviction for violating the Espionage Act when it decided Schenck v. United States. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., writing for the Court, suggested that "the question in every case is whether the words used are 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."

The "clear and present danger" test of Schenck was extended in Debs v. United States , again by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The case involved a speech made by Eugene V. Debs, a political activist. Debs had not spoken any words that posed a "clear and present danger" to the conscription system, but a speech in which he denounced militarism was nonetheless found to be sufficient grounds for his conviction. Justice Holmes suggested that the speech had a "natural tendency" to occlude the draft.

Thus, the Supreme Court effectively shaped the First Amendment in such a manner as to permit a multitude of restrictions on speech. Further restrictions on speech were accepted by the Supreme Court when it decided Gitlow v. New York in 1925. Writing for the majority, Justice Edward Sanford suggested that states could punish words that "by their very nature, involve danger to the public peace and to the security of the state." Lawmakers were given the freedom to decide which speech would constitute a danger.

Freedom of speech was influenced by anti-Communism during the Cold War. In 1940, Congress replaced the Sedition Act of 1918, which had expired in 1921. The Smith Act passed in that year made punishable the advocacy of "the propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force and violence." The law was mainly used as a weapon against Communist leaders. The constitutionality of the Act was questioned in the case Dennis v. United States. The Court upheld the law in 1951 by a six-two vote (one Justice, Tom Clark , did not participate because he had previously ordered the prosecutions when he was Attorney General). Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson relied on Oliver Wendell Holmes' "clear and present danger" test when he wrote for the majority. Vinson suggested that the doctrine did not require the government to "wait until the putsch is about to be executed, the plans have been laid and the signal is awaited," thereby broadly defining the words "clear and present danger." Thus, even though there was no immediate danger posed by the Communist Party's ideas, their speech was restricted by the Court.

Dennis v. United States has never been explicitly overruled by the Court, but future decisions have in practice reversed the case. In 1957, the Court changed its interpretation of the Smith Act in deciding Yates v. United States . The Supreme Court ruled that the Act was aimed at "the advocacy of action, not ideas." Thus, the advocacy of abstract doctrine remains protected under the First Amendment. Only speech explicitly inciting the forcible overthrow of the government remains punishable under the Smith Act.

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren expanded free speech protections in the 1960s, though there were exceptions. In 1968, for example, the Court upheld a law prohibiting the mutilation of draft cards in United States v. O'Brien . The Court ruled that protesters could not burn draft cards because doing so would interfere with the "smooth and efficient functioning" of the draft system.

In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that free speech rights extended to students in school while deciding Tinker v. Des Moines. The case involved several students who were punished for wearing black arm-bands to protest the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled that the school could not restrict symbolic speech that did not cause undue interruptions of school activities. Justice Abe Fortas wrote, "state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students ... are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State." The decision was arguably overruled, or at least undermined, by Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986), in which the Court held a student could be punished for his speech before a public assembly.

Also in 1969, the Court decided the landmark Brandenburg v. Ohio, which overruled Whitney v. California, a 1927 case in which a woman was imprisoned for aiding the Communist Party. Brandenburg effectively swept away Dennis as well, casting the right to speak freely of violent action and revolution in broad terms: "[Our] decisions have fashioned the principle that the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." Some claim that Brandenburg essentially sets forth a reworded "clear and present danger" test, but the accuracy of such statements is hard to judge. The Court has never heard or decided a case involving seditious speech since Brandenburg was handed down.

The divisive issue of flag burning as a form of protest came before the Supreme Court in 1989, as it decided Texas v. Johnson. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Gregory Johnson for burning the flag by a vote of five to four. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. asserted that "if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable." Many in Congress vilified the decision of the Court. The House unanimously passed a resolution denouncing the Court; the Senate did the same with only three dissents. Congress passed a federal law barring flag burning, but the Supreme Court struck it down as well in United States v. Eichman (1990). Many attempts have been made to amend the Constitution to allow Congress to prohibit the desecration of the flag. Since 1995, the Amendment has consistently mustered sufficient votes to pass in the House of Representatives, but not in the Senate. Most recently, in 2000, the Senate voted 63–37 in favor of the amendment, which fell four votes short of the requisite two-thirds majority.


The federal government and the states have long been permitted to restrict obscene or pornographic speech. The exact definition of Censored page and pornography, however, has changed over time. Justice Potter Stewart famously stated that although he could not define pornography, he "kn[ew] it when he s[aw] it."

When it decided Rosen v. United States in 1896, the Supreme Court adopted the same obscenity standard as had been articulated in a famous British case, Regina v. Hicklin. The Hicklin standard defined material as obscene if it tended "to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall." Thus, the standards of the most sensitive members of the community were the standards for obscenity. In 1957, the Court ruled in Roth v. United States that the Hicklin test was inappropriate. Instead, the Roth test for obscenity was "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest."

The Roth test was expanded when the Court decided Miller v. California in 1973. Under the Miller test, a work is obscene if it would be found appealing to the prurient interest by an average person applying contemporary community standards, depicts Censored page in a patently offensive way and has no serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Note that "community" standards—not national standards—are applied; thus, material may be deemed obscene in one locality but not in another. Child pornography is not subject to the Miller test, as the Supreme Court decided in 1982. The Court felt that the government's interest in protecting children from abuse was paramount.

Possession of obscene material in the home may not be prohibited by law. In writing for the Court in the case of Stanley v. Georgia, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote, "if the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man sitting in his own house what books he may read or what films he may watch." It is not, however, unconstitutional for the government to prevent the mailing or sale of obscene items, though they may be viewed only in private.

Libel, slander and private action

The American prohibition on defamatory speech or publications—slander and libel—traces its origins to English law. The nature of defamation law was vitally changed by the Supreme Court in 1964, while deciding New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. The New York Times had published an advertisement indicating that officials in Montgomery, Alabama had acted violently in suppressing the protests of African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. The Montgomery Police Commissioner, L. B. Sullivan , sued the Times for libel on the grounds that the advertisement damaged his reputation. The Supreme Court unanimously overruled the $500,000 judgment against the Times. Justice William J. Brennan suggested that public officials may sue for libel only if the publisher published the statements in question with "actual malice," a difficult standard to meet.

The actual malice standard applies to both public officials and public figures, including celebrities. Though the details vary from state to state, private individuals normally need only to prove negligence on the part of the defendant.

As the Supreme Court ruled in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974), opinions cannot be considered defamatory. It is thus permissible to suggest, for instance, that a lawyer is a bad one, but not permissible to declare that the lawyer is ignorant of the law: the former constitutes a statement of values, but the latter is a statement alleging a fact.

More recently, in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. , 497 U.S. 1 (1990), the Supreme Court backed off from the protection from "opinion" announced in Gertz. The court in Milkovich specifically held that there is no wholesale exemption to defamation law for statements labeled "opinion," but instead that a statement must be provably false (falsifiable) before it can be the subject of a libel suit.

In 1988, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell extended the "actual malice" standard to intentional infliction of emotional distress in a ruling which protected a parodic caricature. In the ruling, "actual malice" was described as "knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true."

Ordinarily, the First Amendment only applies to prohibit direct government censorship. The protection from libel suits recognizes that the power of the state is needed to enforce a libel judgment between private persons. The Supreme Court's scrutiny of defamation suits is thus sometimes considered part of a broader trend in U.S. jurisprudence away from the strict state action requirement, and into the application of First Amendment principles when private actors invoke state power.

Likewise, the Noerr-Pennington doctrine is a rule of law that often prohibits the application of antitrust law to statements made by competitors before public bodies: a monopolist may freely go before the city council and urge the denial of its competitor's building permit without being subject to Sherman Act liability. This principle is being applied to litigation outside the antitrust context, including state tort suits for intentional interference with business relations and "SLAPP Suits."

Similarly, some states have adopted, under their protections for free speech, the Pruneyard doctrine, which prohibits private property owners whose property is equivalent to a traditional public forum (often shopping malls and grocery stores) from enforcing their private property rights to exclude political speakers and petition-gatherers. This doctrine has been rejected as a matter of federal constitutional law, but is meeting growing acceptance as a matter of state law.

Political speech

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and related laws restricted the monetary contributions that may be made to political campaigns and expenditure by candidates. The Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the Act in Buckley v. Valeo, decided in 1976. The Court affirmed some parts of the Act and rejected others. The Court concluded that limits on campaign contributions "serve[d] the basic governmental interest in safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process without directly impinging upon the rights of individual citizens and candidates to engage in political debate and discussion." At the same time, the Court overturned the expenditure limits, which it found imposed "substantial restraints on the quantity of political speech."

Further rules on campaign finance were scrutinized by the Court when it determined McConnell v. Federal Election Commission in 2003. The case centered on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a law that introduced several new restrictions on campaign financing. The Supreme Court upheld provisions which barred the raising of soft money by national parties and the use of soft money by private organizations to finance certain election-related advertisements. At the same time, the Court struck down the "choice of expenditure" rule, which required that parties could either make coordinated expenditures for all its candidates, or permit candidates to spend independently, but not both, further stating that a "provision place[d] an unconstitutional burden on the parties' right to make unlimited independent expenditures." The Supreme Court also ruled that the provision preventing minors from making political contributions was unconstitutional, relying on the precedent on the Tinker case. For additional details, see campaign finance reform.

Free speech zones came into existence soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as part of George W. Bush's security campaign. Free speech zones are set up by the Secret Service who scout locations where the president is to pass through or speak at. Officials target those who carry anti-Bush signs (and sometimes pro-Bush signs) and escort them to the free speech zones prior to and during the event. Reporters are often barred by local officials from displaying protesters on camera or speaking to them within the zone. Protesters who refuse to go to the free speech zone are often arrested and charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest . In 2003, a seldom-used federal law was brought up that says that 'entering a restricted area around the President of the United States' is a crime.

Involuntary commitment

A small minority has questioned whether involuntary commitment laws, when the diagnosis of mental illness leading, in whole or in part, to the commitment, was made to some degree on the basis of the speech or writings of the committed individual, violates the right of freedom of speech of such individuals.

The First Amendment implications of involuntary psychiatric drugging have also been questioned. Though the District Court in Mills v. Rogers 457 U.S. 291 (1982) found that "whatever powers the Constitution has granted our government, involuntary mind control is not one of them," this finding was not of precedential value, and the Supreme Court ruling was essentially inconclusive.


Freedom of the press, like freedom of speech, is subject to restrictions on bases such as defamation law. Restrictions, however, have been struck down if they are aimed at the political message or content of newspapers.

Taxation of the press

The Government retains the right to tax newspapers, just as it may tax other commercial products. Generally, however, taxes that focus exclusively on newspapers have been found unconstitutional. In Grosjean v. American Press Co. (1936) the Court invalidated a state tax on newspaper advertising revenues. Similarly, some taxes that give preferential treatment to the press have been struck down. In 1987, for instance, the Court invalidated an Arkansas law exempting "religious, professional, trade and sports journals" from taxation since the law amounted to the regulation of newspaper content.

In 1991, deciding Leathers v. Medlock , the Supreme Court found that states may treat different components of the media differently, for instance by taxing cable television but not newspapers. The Court found that "differential taxation of speakers, even members of the press, does not implicate the First Amendment unless the tax is directed at, or presents the danger of suppressing, particular ideas."

Content regulation

The courts have rarely treated content-based regulation of the press with any sympathy. In Miami Herald Pub. Co. v. Tornillo (1971), the Court unanimously struck down a state law requiring newspapers criticizing political candidates to publish their responses. The state claimed that the law had been passed to ensure press responsibility. Finding that only freedom, and not press responsiblity, is mandated by the First Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled that the government may not force newspapers to publish that which they do not desire to publish.

Content-based regulation of television and radio, however, have been sustained by the Supreme Court in various cases. Since there are a limited number of frequencies for non-cable television and radio stations, the government licenses them to various companies. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that the problem of scarcity does not permit the raising of a First Amendment issue. The government may restrain broadcasters, but only on a content-neutral basis.

Petition and assembly

The right to petition the government has been interpreted as extending to petitions of all three branches: the Congress, the executive and the judiciary. The Supreme Court has interpreted "redress of grievances" broadly; thus, it is possible for one to request the government to exercise its powers in furtherance of the general public good. However, a few times has Congress has directly limited the right to petition. During the 1790s, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, punishing opponents of the Federalist Party; the Supreme Court never ruled on the matter. In 1835 the House of Representatives adopted the "Gag Rule," barring abolitionist petitions calling for the end of slavery. The Supreme Court did not hear a case related to the rule, which was in any event abolished in 1840. During World War I, individuals petitioning for the repeal of sedition and espionage laws (vide supra) were punished; again, the Supreme Court did not rule on the matter.

The right of assembly was originally closely tied to the right to petition. One significant case involving the two rights was United States v. Cruikshank (1876). There, the Supreme Court held that citizens may "assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances." Essentially, it was held that the right to assemble was secondary, while the right to petition was primary. Later cases, however, have expanded the meaning of the right to assembly. Hague v. CIO (1939), for instance, refers to the right to assemble for the "communication of views on national questions" and for "disseminating information."

International significance

Most provisions of the United States Bill of Rights are based on the English Bill of Rights (1689) and on other aspects of English law. The English Bill of Rights, however, does not include many of the protections found in the First Amendment. For example, while the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech to the general populace, the English Bill of Rights only protected "freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament." The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a French revolutionary document passed only weeks before Congress proposed the Bill of Rights, contains certain guarantees that are similar to the First Amendment's. For instance, it suggests that "every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom."

Freedom of speech in the United States is more extensive than nearly any other nation in the world. While the First Amendment does not explicitly set restrictions on freedom of speech, other declarations of rights sometimes do so. The European Convention on Human Rights, for example, permits restrictions "in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary," and in practice these loopholes have been interpreted quite broadly by the courts of Europe.

The First Amendment was one of the first guarantees of religious freedom: neither the English Bill of Rights, nor the French Declaration of Rights, contains an equivalent guarantee. Neither is the United States a theocracy like Iran, nor is it an officially atheist state like the People's Republic of China, due to the constraints imposed by the First Amendment.

See also


  • Constitution of the United States.
  • Kilman, J. & Costello, G. (Eds). (2000). The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation.
  • Haynes, C. "Religious liberty in public life." (2004).
  • Hoover Institution. "Campaign Finance." (2004).
  • Irons, P. (1999). A People's History of the Supreme Court. New York: Penguin.
  • "Pornography." (2004). Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia.

United States Constitution
Main body
Preamble | Article I | Article II | Article III | Article IV | Article V | Article VI | Article VII
Bill of Rights: I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X
Other amendments: XI | XII | XIII | XIV | XV | XVI | XVII | XVIII | XIX | XX | XXI | XXII | XXIII | XXIV | XXV | XXVI | XXVII

History of the Constitution
Federalist Papers | Proposed amendments | Signatures | Unsuccessful amendments
Interpretation of the Constitution
Congressional power of enforcement | Dormant Commerce Clause | Separation of powers | Preemption | Incorporation of the Bill of Rights
Specific clauses in the Constitution
Commerce Clause | Due Process Clause | Equal Protection Clause | Full Faith and Credit Clause | Supremacy Clause

Last updated: 02-11-2005 13:02:43
Last updated: 05-06-2005 01:27:49