First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Facts About It

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The First Amendment is represented and interpreted differently by the American people, the judicial branch, and state governments. What is the First Amendment? It is an amendment that gives the right to American citizens to have freedom of assembly, press, religion, and speech. This is a key component for people in a representative democracy. These four freedoms are basic human rights that people need to have. If people are forced to believe certain things, people could develop feelings of oppression and may not want to believe in what the government wants them to. If they are unable to meet, talk, and/or write about how they feel about something, they will find other ways to do it. Every human being has their own mind full of opinions. Not having these basic freedoms could cause possible rebellions towards that certain ruling. The main freedom that will be discussed in this essay is the freedom of speech. By giving them the ability to speak their mind, people will be able to say what needs to be said. Also, it keeps the government from becoming too powerful and from ignoring what the people need. People are able to speak about bad things that are happening with the president or in Congress. They are able to share information among each other about candidates, policies, etc. This can be helpful when people need to vote on who or what to vote for. This goes along with political liberty. Political liberty is the expression of opinions about public policies (Greenberg & Page, 2018). Without it, it can lead to elected autocrats (Greenberg & Page, 2018). Also, it can be helpful for people in the government making big decisions for the country. They are able to hear the voices of their people. This amendment also goes along with popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty is when a government is sustained by its people (Greenberg & Page, 2018).

The voice of the people is critical in developing a strong government, and for the most part, it keeps the people satisfied; however, many of the American people have misconceptions about this freedom. The First Amendment is essential to pleasing the American people. However, there are some limitations that may be looked over when it comes to this amendment. Amendment I 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.”(Van Alstyne, 1990) People believe this means not mentioning religion and that there should be a separation of church and state. Although, this may be enforced in some cases. This is not in the first amendment. A lot of times people openly mock someone’s religion, but religion cannot be talked about in a positive light without some consequences in schools regarding the teachers. The Amendment was put in place to keep Congress from doing anything that would take away from these basic freedoms. It protects American citizens from the government not the consequences coming from saying something out of line. A common misconception is that people have freedom of speech, and can say whatever they want. If they say something that gets them in trouble, they believe they are having freedom taken away from them. However, this is not at all true. “ A man has a right to be free from legislative restraint in his business unless the exercise of this right will produce a clear and present danger of substantive evil which the legislature should prevent.” (Lathom, 1950)

In other words, Americans are lucky to have freedom of speech, but there are boundaries. If someone says something that can be a danger to others, there are consequences. For example, it is a bad idea to joke around about having a concealed weapon in a place where they are forbidden. It is commonly known by many that this is not a good idea. Also, at the workplace, bosses have the right to fire anyone, and in some cases, bosses can fire them without an explanation. In other words, it would be smart to not bring up controversial topics with them. Another thing that has to be addressed is that racist comments may be punishable. According to Graber, Nelson, and Gould, “... We understand freedom in terms of what people feel free to express, then Americans at present are not free to make racial insults.” (2006) This could be considered speech being used for danger and evil. This is a common issue seen on college campuses. Administrators are becoming more aware of this problem when they are trying to do different activities on campus that may bring up current issues in today’s world (Campus Free Speech, 2007). This can bring up issues of “hate speech” among students who do not agree with each other. These administrators can be bad for the first amendment even if they are not going against “constitutional law.” (Campus Free Speech, 2007). Another example of students pushing the limits of this amendment was a highschool boy named Fredrick. Back in 2002, he got suspended from school for writing “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” on a poster board. Frederick believed his first amendment rights were being taken away from him (Campus Free Speech, 2007). His court case will be discussed later in the essay. Freedom of Speech may sound like Americans can do or say whatever; however, this amendment does NOT ensure that they will not get in trouble. Relationships may break from someone’s words. People can lose their jobs from saying the wrong things to the wrong people. Suspensions from school are possible. This amendment does not place a shield around people to not feel anything from someone’s words. It is a basic right, but there are consequences for taking it too far. This amendment does not protect Americans from losing relationships from saying things they should not have said. Also, it is important to keep in mind that this could cause problems the other way around. If people are being suppressed from speaking out, this can cause problems. People should be able to state their opinions without feeling like they will get beat up or taken away by the police. Now, there are obviously limitations, but people should still be able to talk freely without other’s persecuting them. This is coming up a lot in the media.

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The judicial branch is in place to apply the laws that they passed and cases brought before them. In terms of the first amendment, the judicial branch is responsible for applying that law based on its wording, and it also relies on previous similar court rulings in making judgments. One topic that has been an issue lately is hate speech and laws pertaining to that. “The term ‘hate speech,’ refers to verbal and written words that convey a grossly negative assessment of particular groups based on their race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. Hate speech thus is highly derogatory and degrading, and the language is typically coarse.” (Kaplin, 1992) Hate speech can be a difficult area because the first amendment is to prevent actual damage not “mean” talk. It is only enforced when it can cause serious problems. It is hard to determine the line between actual hate speech and simply just a snarky comment. Everyday people get their feelings hurt, but the government cannot always step in and fix this. “The Supreme Court reaffirmed that ‘if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.’” (Kaplin, 1992) In simpler terms, society may say something is offensive, but the government cannot start placing all these laws on speaking. The first amendment protects Americans from having the government intervene, and take away speech. This is why hate speech is so controversial because no one deserves to be hurt by words, but we cannot give up our freedom to ensure that someone will not get their feelings hurt. However, if their speech is actually very dangerous, what will happen then? “As the Supreme Court has stated, ‘Because First Amendment freedoms need breathing space to survive, the government may regulate in the area only with narrow specificity’” (Kaplin, 1992)

Basically, this is saying that the Supreme Court will only look for specific “hate speech” when interpreting law. Freedom of speech ties in with freedom of expression which is often an area of controversy at the state level. As said before, a more recent debate is the freedom of expression of religion in schools. In Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Danbury, it was stated, “a wall of separation between church and state.” (1999) This is often used as an excuse to limit religious talk in schools. This can be used rightly and wrongly. Many believe this is part of the Constitution or treated as though it is. However, it was simply in a letter by Thomas Jefferson. This can be used to show the purpose of a law, but it is not part of the U.S. Constitution like many belief. A teacher should not give a sermon to children at a school; however, there should not be consequences for answering a question based on the Bible. Taking away the freedom to talk about religion should not be allowed. People should be able to express what they believe as long as they are not crossing boundaries to much. There are many examples of court cases, but there is not enough information in the library databases. However, a lot of the court cases can be specific to one state. A court case that deals with a form of allowed freedom of expression of religion to look at would be Wallace v. Jaffree. A good example of freedom of expression in schools is the Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District Supreme Court case (Graber, 1998). The students were wearing black armbands to protest the vietnam war. They were expelled for doing so. “... Supreme Court’s decision protecting the constitutional right of public school students to engage in non-disruptive speech…” (Graber, 1998)

In other words, this case ensured that students could silently protest without the state stepping in again. The students were only trying to support something they believed in, and they were not causing any chaos. “... high school principals and teachers reacted strongly when a few students wore black armbands mourning Vietnam War casualties, the middle school authorities were more tolerant, and an elementary school teacher used the opportunity to discuss Vietnam and free speech.” (Graber, 1998) This quote shows that each school had a different view of the situation. The elementary school believed that it dealt with the freedom of speech and was able to use it as a teaching opportunity. Although the case started out bad and two students had to be expelled, it opened the doors to students being able to express their opinions (to a degree). Another example of freedom of expression was stated earlier. Frederick, the student who was suspended for writing “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” on a poster, believed his first amendment was being violated. The U.S. Supreme Court stated, “The governmental interest in stopping student drug abuse allows schools to restrict student expression that they reasonably regard as promoting illegal drug abuse.” (Campus Free Speech, 2007) Frederick’s case and Tinker v. Des Moines are two good cases to compare. One allows for students to express their opinions freely (without disruption); whereas, the other one says protesting illegal drugs is not okay. The first amendment is in place to keep government out of interfering with people’s right to speak and express freely.

However, Frederick's case was a good example of the fact that there are potential consequences for not being careful with words. In conclusion, the first amendment has brought up many court cases regarding the American people, judicial branch, and state government. There were so many cases brought up that really have really changed what exactly freedom of speech has become over the years. Students may express their opinions with a few boundaries. Therefore, schools are allowed to punish you for saying inappropriate things in school (Campus Free Speech, 2007). (At Greenville Tech Charter High school, a student was recently suspended for saying an inappropriate term towards African Americans in the hallway. This does not mean that the student’s first amendment rights were being violated. It is a form of “hate speech” and is inappropriate to be yelling down a hallway.) Corporations are allowed to fire someone for saying something out of line. The first amendment was put in place to protect the people from the government intervening. These days it seems like Americans want the government to step in. People are becoming more offended about things, and media is becoming bias. There is a cyberbullying now. Hate speech is becoming big, and people want laws regarding it. College campuses are starting to have issues regarding hate speech (Kaplin, 1992).

The government can only do so much before taking away too much freedom. This freedom of speech is all too often taken for granted and seen as a basic right. Although it is a basic right, it should not be treated lightly. There are countries out there who do not have this freedom. Americans should treat it with respect and learn to speak kindly. This would take out all the controversy there is. The government would not have to worry about interfering with this right. It is important that the government does not try to make new laws regarding freedom of speech. This could cause issues regarding America’s representative democracy.

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