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.
— The First Amendment to the
The First Amendment was written because at America's inception, citizens
demanded a guarantee of their basic freedoms.
Our blueprint for personal freedom and the hallmark of an open society, the
First Amendment protects freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and
Without the First Amendment, religious minorities could be persecuted, the
government might well establish a national religion, protesters could be
silenced, the press could not criticize government, and citizens could not
mobilize for social change.
When the U.S. Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787, it did not contain
the essential freedoms now outlined in the Bill of Rights, because many of the
Framers viewed their inclusion as unnecessary. However, after vigorous debate,
the Bill of Rights was adopted. The first freedoms guaranteed in this historic
document were articulated in the 45 words written by James Madison that we have
come to know as the First Amendment.
The Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments to the Constitution — went into
effect on Dec. 15, 1791, when the state of Virginia ratified it, giving the bill
the majority of ratifying states required to protect citizens from the power of
the federal government.
The First Amendment ensures that "if there 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 force
citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein," as Justice Robert
Jackson wrote in the 1943 case West Virginia v. Barnette.
And as Justice William Brennan wrote in New York Times v. Sullivan in
1964, the First Amendment provides that "debate on public issues ... [should be]
... uninhibited, robust, and wide-open."
However, Americans vigorously dispute the application of the First Amendment.
Most people believe in the right to free speech, but debate whether it should
cover flag-burning, hard-core rap and heavy-metal lyrics, tobacco advertising,
hate speech, pornography, nude dancing, solicitation and various forms of
symbolic speech. Many would agree to limiting some forms of free expression, as
seen in the First Amendment Center's State of the First Amendment survey
Most people, at some level, recognize the necessity of religious liberty and
toleration, but some balk when a religious tenet of a minority religion
conflicts with a generally applicable law or with their own religious faith.
Many Americans see the need to separate the state from the church to some
extent, but decry the banning of school-sponsored prayer from public schools and
the removal of the Ten Commandments from public buildings.
Further, courts wrestle daily with First Amendment controversies and
constitutional clashes, as evidenced by the free-press vs. fair-trial debate and
the dilemma of First Amendment liberty principles vs. the equality values of the
Such difficulties are the price of freedom of speech and religion in a
tolerant, open society.