What Are First Amendment Rights?
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.
The First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by the states in 1791 and, along with nine other amendments ratified at the same time, became known as the Bill of Rights. It is rare for a day to go by without hearing or reading a news story in which reference is made to an individual's First Amendment rights being violated or asserted. If you look closely at the amendment and court decisions interpreting it, you probably will be surprised about what it really says about the following:
- Freedom of religion
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of assembly
For example, professional athletes who demonstrate their opposition to government policies or social issues periodically make the evening news. Invariably, someone is quoted referring to the players' First Amendment right to protest, but as you will discover, what actually decides their ability to protest without being fired or disciplined is contract law and employment law and not the Constitution.
Freedom of religion
The first line of the amendment protects your right to practice your religion as you wish without government interference. Equally important is its prohibition against being compelled to practice a particular religion.
The reason religion was an important issue for drafters of the Bill of Rights goes back to the pre-Revolutionary War era and the colonists being forced to accept the Church of England as the official religion. The drafters wanted to protect future generations from government interference in their decisions to practice or not to practice a religion.
By the way, don't spend too much time searching through the Constitution or the Bill of Rights for the phrase "separation of church and state" because you won't find it. Thomas Jefferson used it several years later to describe the purpose of the First Amendment.
Freedom of speech
Let's go back to the professional athletes and their protest. Protecting people from the federal government infringing on their rights is why there is a Bill of Rights. It was not until ratification of the Fourteen Amendment and its due process clause that the U.S. Supreme Court was able to extend First Amendment protections to activities by state governments. However, Constitution does not protect you from limitations on free speech imposed by your employer or another person, so unless the government passes a law prohibiting protests by athletes, the issue is a matter left to player's unions and collective bargaining agreements.
The right to say or do anything you wish in the name of free speech is not absolute. According to the Supreme Court, governments may pass laws limiting free speech in the following areas:
- Fighting words
- Words intended to incite violence
A city ordinance requiring a permit to conduct a public protest may limit its time, place and manner without violating your constitutional rights.
Freedom of Assembly and right to petition
Prior to the First Amendment, it would have been possible for government to force you to belong to a particular political party. The amendment protects your right to associate or to avoid associating with others. The right to petition the government has been interpreted to give you the right to file a lawsuit challenging government activities infringing on your constitutional rights.
Evolving interpretations of the First Amendment
Cases brought to the Supreme Court have resulted in the following applications of the First Amendment:
- Banning laws requiring students participate in morning prayers in public schools
- Allowing the wearing of religious clothing and garments
- Extending the definition of speech to include symbolic speech, such as protesting government action by burning the American flag
- Extending constitutional protection to expressing opinions and points of view in art, photographs, movies and other forms of non-verbal or written communications
Future court decisions promise to continue, as they have done in the past, to make the language of the First Amendment as meaningful today as it was when written more than 225 years ago.