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U.S. Institutions - What is the First Amendment?


U.S. Constituion

U.S. Constituion

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

The United States Constitution, the Law of the Land since its ratification in 1789, established a national government, provided a structure for the relationship between the central government and the states, and limited the government’s power by instituting a separation of powers, as well as a system of checks and balances. The framers of the constitution also made provisions that allowed for it to be changed, or amended, to reflect changes within society itself.

To protect individual rights—and guarantee ratification of the Constitution—ten amendments were added to the document before it was even ratified. These are collectively named the Bill of Rights.

Of these, the first amendment may arguably be the most important. It stipulates that every citizen has the right to practice his or her own religion without government interference.

That they have the right to express their own opinion without fear of government suppression or reprisal.

That citizens may assemble in a group without government interference.

That they may protest unfair treatment by the government, and then petition to address those injustices.

And that the press is free to write about controversial topics without the threat of government censorship.

The first clause of the first amendment is meant to promote religious freedom by prohibiting the government from imposing a national religion. But it also means that no religious sect may use the government or its assets at any level to promote itself, or to force its tenets on those who do not observe that particular set of beliefs.

The freedom to speak or publish one’s opinion prevents government censorship. But it also puts the onus of responsibility for one’s actions on the individual. This means that if one spreads malicious lies or incites violence, he or she will be held responsible for the consequences.

Likewise, the right to assembly does not mean one is free to riot.

The first amendment prevents the government from limiting the freedom of expression, and therefore the freedom of thought and the dissemination of ideas. It is indeed the law that guarantees individual freedom.

In the words of mid- 20th century Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us."

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