The First Amendment of the United States Constitution reads ''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.''
There are five major sections of the First Amendment of the Constitution:
1 - Freedom of Religion
2 - Freedom of Speech
3 - Freedom of the Press
4 - Right to assemble
5 - Right to Petition the Government
Freedom of Religion
There are two interpretations of this clause of the First Amendment. Liberals will argue that the First Amendment creates a wall between religion and the government; this is the source of the phrase ''the separation of Church and State.'' While these words do not appear in the amendment, they were penned by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to church leaders in Connecticut.
A more conservative interpretation of this clause posits that the government is not meant to operate independent of religious influence or values, but to protect organized religion from being overrun by a tyrannical government.
Freedom of Speech
The notion of "free speech" doesn't give one license to say whatever one likes without consequence. While there are few limits on the right to speak, there are a few key limitations established by the US Supreme Court:
- Commercial speech is not as fully protected as private speech. Commercial speech - speech made by or on the behalf of a corporation or individual for the purpose of making a profit - meets on or more of these conditions:
- The contents do ''no more than propose a commercial transaction.''
- The contents may be characterized as advertisements.
- The contents reference a specific product.
- The disseminator is economically motivated to distribute the speech.
Commercial speech is not as free as private speech. Governments (state, local, or federal) may restrict commercial speech, especially in regards to the location where this speech is occurring.
- Libel and slander
Speech is considered libelous or slanderous if it meets any or all of the following conditions:
- Actionable words, such as those imputing the injured party: is guilty of some offense, suffers from a contagious disease or psychological disorder, is unfit for public office because of moral failings or an inability to discharge his or her duties, or lacks integrity in profession, trade or business;
- The charge must be false
- The charge must be articulated by a third person, either spoken or in writing
- The words must not be subject to legal protection (as in words spoken by Congress)
- The charge must be spoken in malice
It is often said that the best defense against libel and slander is the truth - Person A can speak words that are harmful to Person B if A can prove that the charges against B are true.
The freedom of speech is a right that is central to American heritage, and is a closely protected right by courts and Congress. Infringement of this fundamental right, no matter how offensive the speech, is taboo in American culture.
Freedom of the Press
Political commentator and reporter Hannah Beech said, ''Without the crucial check of a free press ... democracy exists in name only.'' Historically, a free press was the impetus to the American Revolution; to this day, the freedom of the press to report on - and criticize - the American government is a key component of the American political system. The American press enjoy such expansive freedoms that they have been referred to as the fourth branch of American government.
The courts have long protected the press from government regulation of editorial content; however, the courts have upheld FCC regulations regarding content on TV and radio, but only on a content-neutral basis. In Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Communications Commission's authority to restrict the use of ''indecent'' material in broadcasting.
Right to Assemble and Petition the Government
While the courts have not ruled as often on this clause of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has said, ''the right of the people peaceably to assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances, or for anything else connected with the powers or duties of the National Government, is an attribute of national citizenship, and, as such, under protection of, and guaranteed by, the United States.'' That is, peaceful protest and demonstration is not only legal, but a protected right.
Freedom of Association
While not clearly articulated in the First Amendment, in NAACP v. Alabama in 1958, the Supreme Court ruled that freedom of association is a fundamental right in it. The Court has ruled that private organizations have the right to exclude individuals from membership if their presence would affect the group's ability to advocate a particular point of view.
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