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A primer on First Amendment rights


Free speech – the fundamental right guaranteed by the first of the ten amendments forms the bedrock of American society. In recent years, the shifting political landscape and innovative communication tools have brought this right enjoyed by the citizens to the forefront of many demands and debates.

The First Amendment states:

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.

In simpler terms, the First Amendment guarantees American citizens freedom in five key areas – religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. Together these five freedoms grant citizens the liberty to practice any religion; communicate their ideas; disseminate information using mass media; assemble with like-minded people, and hold the government to account. These fundamental liberties have shaped a democratic society where everyone has the right to speak and be heard.

The ‘speech’ in the Freedom of Speech is not limited to spoken words. It covers a vast medium of expression, including written language, television programs, seminars, works of art like movies and paintings, signage and posters, online posts and video games, paintings, and symbolic expressions such as a colored armbands.

Interestingly, the First Amendment also gives citizens the right not to speak! So, refusing to say the pledge of allegiance is well within the American’s rights. While it is often made to sound as though “Freedom of Speech” gives one the liberty to say, write, post, or convey by some other means whatever one wishes to, that is not the case.

For instance, harmful speech is not protected by the First Amendment. A classic example is yelling “fire” in a packed theatre. There are many such cases where freedom of speech does not protect a person who intends to cause harm or has malicious intent. Defamatory speech or anything done to blackmail another does not come under the protective umbrella of free speech. Words that incite lawlessness or threaten national security are not protected by one’s liberty to speak freely. Perjury and plagiarism are punishable offenses. So are obscenity and child pornography. Threats and soliciting another to commit a crime are not covered by the First Amendment.

Further, it must be noted that First Amendment protects citizens’ right to speech from government censorship. While all branches of government and public institutions, including the judiciary, fall under the gambit, private citizens, businesses, and organizations can impose restrictions on their employees, students, or clientele. For example, a news channel can choose what opinions it will publish or broadcast.

A Primer On First Amendment Rights
A April 22, 1885, cartoon from the Puck magazine depicting an army of clergymen assaulting a fortress defended by newspaper editors including from Puck, while atop a hill in the background a statue labeled “Constitution” that states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” can be seen. Joseph Keppler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, hate speech has been rising under the guise of free speech. Fake news and misinformation, especially on online platforms, are getting away, citing the First Amendment. Such blatant misuse of the fundamental right only polarizes an already divided nation. A lack of clear understanding of what comes under “freedom of speech” and what falls outside its gambit is necessary. After all, one must know precisely what one is defending in the name of “free speech.”

The freedom to speak and communicate one’s ideas, thoughts, and opinions is a vital pillar of democracy and should not be squandered or misused. A truly democratic society is a space that nurtures different views and perspectives without fear of censorship or repercussion. The First Amendment thrives only when all Americans can exercise their right to speak, and each defends the right of the other to do so.

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Republished with permission from TIPP Insights

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