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U.S. Institutions - Why is the First Amendment Important?


U.S. Constituion

This Editorial is one of a series on the U.S. Constitution and the structure of the U.S. government.

To protect individual rights, the framers of the United States Constitution added ten amendments to the document, which came into force in 1792, three years after the Constitution itself did. These amendments are collectively named the Bill of Rights.

Arguably, the First Amendment is also the most important to the maintenance of a democratic government. It states that “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 part of that statement reflects the framers’ experience with the long history of religious strife in Europe. They realized that religious discord can be explosive and cause tremendous disruption in politics. It would be doubly so if one religious sect were favored over all others. So, they ensured that federal government cannot interfere in the citizens’ practice of their religion.

The freedoms of speech, press, assembly and the right to petition the government and seek redress of grievances proclaim that citizens have the right to call the government to account. Freedom of speech and press allows citizens to communicate their ideas verbally and in writing, while freedom of assembly lets them publicly express a common interest. The right to petition allows citizens to point out to the government where it did not follow the law, to seek changes, as well as damages for such missteps.

Of course, there are limits to these freedoms. One may not force the tenets of his or her religion on those who do not observe those beliefs. Harmful speech, such as yelling “fire” in a crowded room, is not protected, nor is a written lie that causes harm. As well, gatherings must be peaceful. Destruction of the property of others is not protected by the First Amendment.

“Liberty is to faction –[political parties or movements] what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires,” said James Madison, the principal framer of the Constitution. “But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

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