Mara Jentoft
January, 2004

The First Amendment

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 U.S. Constitution

The First Amendment is the first, and most important of the constitutional  amendments. The most basic rights of a free people are included in  this amendment. These rights are taken for granted by most of the American people but are vital, and essential in our diverse society with so many different national origins.

    This amendment means that Congress can not make laws about religion, and cannot forbid anyone from practicing their religion. It says that  Congress cannot limit freedom of speech, or of the press, newspapers, and books for example.  Also that the people have the right to get together in groups, and protest what they see as wrong, and ask that government change  those things.

    James Madison wrote the actual 45 words of the First Amendment.  Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the entire Bill of Rights. He was strongly influenced by the Virginia Declaration of Rights  which had been written earlier by Virginia delegate George Mason . The Virginia Declaration of Rights contained several of the ideas, and principles  now contained  in the First Amendment.

    The Constitution was considered a partial document because  there was no guarantee of rights.   Several states refused to ratify the Constitution until some guarantee of individual rights was included.  The Bill of Rights provides that guarantee. The Bill of Rights went into effect on December 15, 1791 when  it had been ratified by enough states to become law. While the Constitution was being ratified most states insisted that a Bill of Rights be written and placed before the states as amendments in order to complete what many felt was an incomplete document because it did not clearly define those rights.

    The British Government before our revolution had tried to restrict  freedom of the press, and freedom of speech and expression.  Many governments had official state religions. Many governments prohibited political protest.  Many governments put limits on what could be published in newspapers, and books. Under those governments people who practiced  some religions  or who said things or  wrote articles that criticized the government or its official policies or who criticized the  people who ran the government could be punished and  in some cases even put to death.

     Many people had specifically come to this “New World” to flee religious or political persecution. Americans were concerned that without a specific guarantees of rights in the constitution  the Government could become oppressive.  There was a lot of fear that the mistakes and abuses of the other governments could be repeated.

    Today because of the guarantee of the First Amendment   people in America can assemble, and protest what the government is doing.  In many other countries of the world people can still be arrested or killed for doing this.  Free speech, which we take for granted is very limited in most of the world even in so called democratic countries.  The free press has similar problems world wide. Currently France is limiting religious dress and has restrictions on the kinds of religions that can be practiced.

     In some countries everyone  must belong to a specific church, and must contribute money to a State designated religion.   Our government by law can not favor one religion over another. Today the First Amendment is limiting efforts by our government to provide money to religious run organizations, and charities such as religious schools and welfare support groups. The First Amendment prevents the government from prohibiting the sharing of information about things like birth control.
    As a member of a minority religion  I am affected by the First Amendment daily. The First Amendment means that I have the right to practice my religion, to attend services, and gatherings with others of my faith and speak about  it. I  also have the right to not have a religion or belong to a church. I have  also spoken out about things I see as political wrongs. Without the First Amendment I might have been silenced or even jailed for my belief .

    We are able to get information about things, and  hear ideas that  the government may not support because of  the Freedom of the Press. We have the right  to listen to other people’s opinions whether or not the government approves of them because of  freedom of speech. Our school books  have information about times when the government policies were wrong or when people were mistreated  in this country. There is information in our schoolbooks  about scientific theories that  differ from some religious doctrine. You can speak publicly about social problems and things you think should change.  In some countries getting together in a group is considered suspicious. We have  access  to differing opinions about political, social and scientific matters.

     Many of the social changes and improvements we take for granted have come about because of the efforts of people to call attention to  problems.  The civil rights movement, the right of women to vote, anti war movements, and more have all  used the  rights guaranteed under  the First Amendment to call attention to government policies and to social injustices .  Many of the actions by protesters have forced the government to make changes as public opinion was reflected in the election of members of congress and state legislators.  Candidates for national offices have campaigned on issues of great public concern and made changes to government policies when elected. 

    The freedoms confirmed by the First Amendment are not absolute. The government does have the power to restrict these freedoms if the expression threatens to be destructive.  The First Amendment does not give anyone the right to express themselves with a violent or illegal action.
Arguments about the extent of the First Amendment have often reached the Supreme Court.

    The example used By Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was that no one has a constitutional right to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater when no fire is present  because such action would pose a “clear and present danger” to public safety. The freedom of the press is somewhat limited by libel laws which prohibit unjust public printed defamation of  someone.  The Press has the right to call someone a thief if they really are a thief, but not if the charge is untrue.  Other areas where there are limits on some of the First Amendment Freedoms  include  Hate crimes and Obscenity laws.

    Some people think that the way the First Amendment is interpreted by the courts goes too far. They don’t think  that the first amendment should protect topless dancers or foul mouthed comedians. Some people think that their Religious beliefs should  be given special status by the government and that some other religious beliefs should not be allowed.

    The First Amendment has shaped the character of the United States because it permits the diversity of the many people who make up the nation. All the many nationalities  can  express their views  without fear.  For over 200 years the First Amendment has served  to guarantee the rights of Free expression that is vital to the to existence of this democratic nation.
The First Amendment is perhaps the main reason people in America can speak freely and share  opinions without fear that they will be punished  for doing so.


“The Dictionary of Cultural literacy “ by E.D. Hirsch jr., Joseph F. Kett, James Trefil second edition 1993 

“Don’t Know Much About History” by Kenneth C Davis ,1990

First Amendment center

National archives

How the First Amendment  Came to Protect Topless Dancing  By Susan Shelley

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