The Right to Worship Freely. The First Amendment has two guarantees [guarantee: to make something sure or certain] of religious freedom. The first says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This means that Congress cannot make any faith the official religion of the United States. Nor can it make laws that favor any religion over another. As Thomas Jefferson explained in a letter to a friend, the amendment builds “a wall of separation between church and state.”
How high should that wall be? The founders of the American republic disagreed about the answer to this question. For example, lawmakers in Virginia proposed using state taxes to help pay for teachers of religion. George Washington was among those who supported this idea as long as no particular church was favored. Opponents of the proposal, like Madison, argued that government and religion should be completely separate.
In a 1971 case known as Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court sided with Madison’s view. This case challenged a Pennsylvania law that used public tax money to pay for books and teachers’ salaries at private religious schools. The Court held that the law was unconstitutional because it allowed too close a connection between government and religion.
The second religious guarantee in the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. This means that people can hold any religious beliefs, without fear of punishment. However, they cannot necessarily do whatever they want in the name of religious freedom. For instance, the Supreme Court has held that parents are not free to deny their children medical treatment or vaccinations because of their religious beliefs.
The Right to Free Speech and Press The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The Supreme Court often treats these rights together as the right of free expression.
Freedom of the press is important because of the vital roles that the press plays in a democratic society. Newspapers, magazines, and other media such as books and television act as watchdogs on the government. They also allow for the free flow of ideas, which citizens need to stay informed and to make up their own minds about important issues. Without a free press, democratic self-government would be impossible.
Americans had learned in colonial days that a free press was their best protection against abuse of government power. In 1735, John Peter Zenger was arrested for printing reports that the governor of New York had taken bribes. The prosecutors said that it was illegal to damage the governor’s good name, even if Zenger had published the truth. Zenger’s lawyer argued that no one should be jailed for “exposing and opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing truth.” The jury agreed, and Zenger was freed.
Freedom of the press also brings responsibilities, such as taking care not to spread false accusations or publish information that would be helpful to an enemy in wartime. Freedom of speech brings responsibilities as well. Although the First Amendment protects the right to speak freely in public places, like streets and parks, that right is not unlimited. The Supreme Court has allowed limits on some kinds of speech, such as speech that endangers public safety. As one justice said, “The most stringent [strongest] protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.”
APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE (March 9, 1942)
The Public Law of New Hampshire forbids under penalty that any person shall address "any offensive, derisive or annoying word to any other person who is lawfully in any street or other public place," or "call him by any offensive or derisive name," was construed by the Supreme Court of the State, in this case and before this case arose, as limited to the use in a public place of words directly tending to cause a breach of the peace by provoking the person addressed to acts of violence. The Supreme Court has held that speech means more than just words. Free expression includes symbolic speech, or actions people take to express their opinions.
Protection of symbolic speech was an issue in the case of Texas v. Johnson (1989). This case involved a man who had been convicted in Texas of burning an American flag as a form of protest. When he appealed his case to the Supreme Court, the justices overturned his conviction. No form of expression can be banned, the Court held, just because “society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
The Right to Assemble and Petition The final two rights protected in the First Amendment are the right to peaceably assemble (meet together with others) and to petition (appeal to) the government. The right to assembly means that citizens can use public property for meetings and demonstrations. Parades, protest marches, and political rallies are all forms of peaceful assembly protected by the First Amendment.
While the First Amendment protects peaceful meetings, it does not give people the right to close streets or buildings or to protest violently. Police can arrest a speaker who urges listeners to riot or to break the law.
What if an assembly is peaceful, but the people watching it are not? This question came up in the case of Gregory v. Chicago (1969). The case began when comedian Dick Gregory led a protest march to the home of Chicago’s mayor. Residents in the neighborhood began throwing eggs and shouting insults at the marchers. Fearful of a riot, police asked the marchers to leave. When the marchers refused, the police arrested them.
The marchers challenged their arrests in court, claiming that their protest was protected under the First Amendment’s right of assembly. The Supreme Court agreed that the marchers had assembled peacefully. If anyone should have been arrested, it was the mayor’s neighbors.
SECTION 4 CITIZEN PROTECTIONS The next three amendments protect citizens from various kinds of government abuse. All three reflect the experience of American colonists under British rule.
Second Amendment: The Right to Bear Arms During colonial times, Great Britain had used a standing, or permanent, army to keep order in the colonies. After winning their independence, Americans were suspicious of standing armies. They preferred to rely on volunteer state militias to protect the new nation. The Second Amendment states that “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed [limited].”
The meaning of this amendment has been much debated. Some people argue that it protects the right of people to own guns only if they are part of an organized militia. An example of such a militia is today’s National Guard. Others believe that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to own weapons for their own self-defense. In 2008, the Supreme Court supported this view in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. The Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a gun for personal use, including self-defense inside the home.