Importance of The First Amendment: Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states the following: “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.”
From the creation of the Magna Carta in 1215 to the passing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, personal freedoms have been interpreted in many different ways throughout history. The birth of the United States as a successful republic was proof that democracy could triumph in the New World. Our nation was founded on the basis that everyone is created equal (entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) but every day, Americans still struggle to defend their constitutional rights. We seldom consider access to uncensored information at the click of a button to be a privilege, yet we do not fear for our livelihood after criticizing government officials or simply supporting an unpopular opinion—which is a luxury many people around the world cannot afford. As a black, female high school student growing up in the 21st century, I know better than to take these rights for granted.
Freedom of speech is one of the most essential components of any free society because it grants individuals the right to sign their own name, voice their consent, or even do something as simple as disagreeing with the majority without fear of punishment. In modern America, where everyone is essentially free to speak their mind without hindrance, defining what is “politically correct,” or otherwise unacceptable, is becoming harder and harder to agree upon.
One of the most debated aspects of the First Amendment is that the law compels individuals to (if not respect, then at least recognize) everyone’s opinions, whether you agree with their beliefs or not. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said it best in a 1929 speech: “The principle of free thought is not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought we hate.” Freedom of speech protects racist, misogynist, and homophobic people, but the First Amendment also defends anyone with opinions that may be considered controversial—after all, the United States was built from the ground up by that first spark of rebellious spirit in the colonies over two centuries ago) Of course, such power can be susceptible to abuse, but the fact that even “hate speech” is legally protected under the U.S. Constitution is proof that First Amendment rights really do apply to everyone, not just those we agree with.
The desire to maintain freedom of the press, however, stems from the confidence that all American citizens are entitled to the truth about local, state, and national issues. More modern issues, however, exacerbated by technology, continue to push the limits of the First Amendment, and unfortunately, some of these problems can’t always be solved by a two hundred and thirty-two-year-old document. The rapid growth of technology during the past few decades has caused “the press” to expand from TV and radio alone, to virtually anyone with access to the internet. Now, one person with a cell phone can post information on the internet and reach millions of people at once in a matter of seconds. That being said, the law does not safeguard you from the consequences of words, nor does it grant you the right to be heard; other people are always free to react to your words, but anyone can choose not to listen.
One of the most notable examples of the conflict that can arise from such accessibility to the media is the current president of the United States, Donald Trump’s, opposition to supposedly biased media (unceremoniously dubbed “fake news”), which he often uses an excuse to disparage his opponents and to stifle any questions asked by the press that may reflect poorly on his administration. “The president expresses shock that the media—’the enemy of the people,’ as he calls them—can just report and write and broadcast ‘whatever they want,’” (Higheredtoday.org). But by ensuring freedom of the press, information becomes less vulnerable to censorship, allowing a wider range of world views and news media to reach the public, and thus, encouraging a more “free” society, where, as said by Adlai Stevenson: it is ‘safe to be unpopular.”
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