“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” What does this mean today? Generally speaking, it means that the government may not jail, fine, or impose civil liability on people or organizations based on what they say or write, except in exceptional circumstances.
Although the First Amendment says “Congress,” the Supreme Court has held that speakers are protected against all government agencies and officials: federal, state, and local, and legislative, executive, or judicial. The First Amendment does not protect speakers, however, against private individuals or organizations, such as private employers, private colleges, or private landowners. The First Amendment restrains only the government.
The Supreme Court has interpreted “speech” and “press” broadly as covering not only talking, writing, and printing, but also broadcasting, using the Internet, and other forms of expression. The freedom of speech also applies to symbolic expression, such as displaying flags, burning flags, wearing armbands, burning crosses, and the like.
The Supreme Court has held that restrictions on speech because of its content—that is, when the government targets the speaker’s message—generally violate the First Amendment. Laws that prohibit people from criticizing a war, opposing abortion, or advocating high taxes are examples of unconstitutional content-based restrictions. Such laws are thought to be especially problematic because they distort public debate and contradict a basic principle of self-governance: that the government cannot be trusted to decide what ideas or information “the people” should be allowed to hear.
There are generally three situations in which the government can constitutionally restrict speech under a less demanding standard.
1. In some circumstances, the Supreme Court has held that certain types of speech are of only “low” First Amendment value, such as:
a. Defamation: False statements that damage a person’s reputations can lead to civil liability (and even to criminal punishment), especially when the speaker deliberately lied or said things they knew were likely false. New York Times v. Sullivan(1964).
b. True threats: Threats to commit a crime (for example, “I’ll kill you if you don’t give me your money”) can be punished. Watts v. United States(1969).
c. “Fighting words”: Face-to-face personal insults that are likely to lead to an immediate fight are punishable. Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire(1942). But this does not include political statements that offend others and provoke them to violence. For example, civil rights or anti-abortion protesters cannot be silenced merely because passersby respond violently to their speech. Cox v. Louisiana(1965).
d. Obscenity: Hard-core, highly sexually explicit pornography is not protected by the First Amendment. Miller v. California(1973). In practice, however, the government rarely prosecutes online distributors of such material.
e. Child pornography: Photographs or videos involving actual children engaging in sexual conduct are punishable, because allowing such materials would create an incentive to sexually abuse children in order to produce such material. New York v. Ferber(1982).
f. Commercial advertising: Speech advertising a product or service is constitutionally protected, but not as much as other speech. For instance, the government may ban misleading commercial advertising, but it generally can’t ban misleading political speech. Virginia Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Council(1976).
Outside these narrow categories of “low” value speech, most other content-based restrictions on speech are presumptively unconstitutional. Even entertainment, vulgarity, “hate speech” (bigoted speech about particular races, religions, sexual orientations, and the like), blasphemy (speech that offends people’s religious sensibilities), and violent video games are protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has generally been very reluctant to expand the list of “low” value categories of speech.
2. The government can restrict speech under a less demanding standard when the speaker is in a special relationship to the government. For example, the speech of government employees and of students in public schools can be restricted, even based on content, when their speech is incompatible with their status as public officials or students. A teacher in a public school, for example, can be punished for encouraging students to experiment with illegal drugs, and a government employee who has access to classified information generally can be prohibited from disclosing that information.Pickering v. Board of Education(1968).
3. The government can also restrict speech under a less demanding standard when it does so without regard to the content or message of the speech. Content-neutral restrictions, such as restrictions on noise, blocking traffic, and large signs (which can distract drivers and clutter the landscape), are generally constitutional as long as they are “reasonable.” Because such laws apply neutrally to all speakers without regard to their message, they are less threatening to the core First Amendment concern that government should not be permitted to favor some ideas over others. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. v. FCC(1994). But not all content-neutral restrictions are viewed as reasonable; for example, a law prohibiting all demonstrations in public parks or all leafleting on public streets would violate the First Amendment. Schneider v. State(1939).
Courts have not always been this protective of free expression. In the nineteenth century, for example, courts allowed punishment of blasphemy, and during and shortly after World War I the Supreme Court held that speech tending to promote crime—such as speech condemning the military draft or praising anarchism—could be punished. Schenck v. United States (1919). Moreover, it was not until 1925 that the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment limited state and local governments, as well as the federal government. Gitlow v. New York (1925).
But starting in the 1920s, the Supreme Court began to read the First Amendment more broadly, and this trend accelerated in the 1960s. Today, the legal protection offered by the First Amendment is stronger than ever before in our history.Geoffrey R. Stone is Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School. Eugene Volokh is Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law.
You can read more from each author on our Interactive Constitution project on this topic, as they offer viewpoints beyond this common interpretation: Fixing Free Speech By Geoffrey R. Stone | Frontiers For Free Speech By Eugene Volokh
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A Guide to the First Amendment
The First Amendment, sometimes called Amendment 1, is the first amendment to the United States Constitution and is also one out of ten amendments in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment makes it illegal to make a law that establishes a religion, stops the freedom of speech, stops people from practicing their religion, stops the press from printing what they want, and stops people from exercising their right to assemble peacefully or demonstrating against the government.
Text of the First Amendment
The text of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution is 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.”
What Does the First Amendment Mean?
There are many key phrases in the first Amendment. Here are some explanations on what exactly they mean.
Freedom of religion: The First Amendment of the United States Constitution prevents the government from setting up or establishing an official religion of the country. American Citizens have the freedom to attend a church, mosque, synagogue, temple, or other house of worship of their choice. They can also choose to not be involved in any religion as well. Because of the First Amendment, we can practice our religion however we want to.
Freedom of speech: The First Amendment of the United States Constitution stops the government from making any laws that may stop us from saying what we feel or think. The American people have the right to share their opinions with other people or criticize the government.
Freedom of the press: Freedom of the press means we have the right to get information from many different sources of information. The government does not have the power to control what is broadcasted on radio or TV, what is printed in books or newspapers, or what is offered online. American citizens can request time on TV to respond to any views that they disagree with. They can also write letters to newspapers, which might be printed for others readers to see. Americans can also pass out leaflets that state their opinions. They may also their own online web pages that have their opinions.
Freedom of assembly: American citizens have the right to come together in private and public gatherings. Citizens can join groups for religious, social, recreational, or political reasons. By organizing in order to act on a common idea and accomplish a common goal, American citizens can more easily spread their ideas to others.
Right to petition: The right to petition the government means that American citizens can ask for adjustments or changes in the government. Citizens can do this by collecting signatures for petitions and sending them to elected representatives. They can also call, e-mail, or write to their elected representatives as well. Another way they can petition the government is by creating support groups that try to cause change by lobbying the government.