Understanding the First Amendment of the Constitution
Out of the 10 amendments in the original Bill of Rights, the First Amendment is often cited as the most important. It includes basic rights of religion and expression that all Americans are entitled to have.
Namely, the First Amendment gives Americans freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly and petitioning of the government.
This is the exact wording of the First Amendment as it is written in the U.S. Constitution:
“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.”
It is important to note here that the First Amendment protects citizens’ rights only from the government. For example, American citizens have the right to speak freely, and the government cannot prosecute them, silence them or punish them for anything they say. The First Amendment, however, does not protect citizens from their fellow citizens or other groups.
Freedom of Religion
Where religion is concerned, the First Amendment effectively makes it illegal for the government to create a law that establishes one religion or promotes one religion over others. It also prevents the government from forming laws that stop people from practicing their religion freely.
Freedom of Expression
Where expression, speech and free writing are concerned, the First Amendment effectively makes it illegal for the government to create a law that stops anyone from saying or writing what they please. Similarly, the press may print whatever they want. When citizens are unhappy with the government, they also have the right to peacefully demonstrate or assemble and petition the government for change.
First Amendment Issues
Naturally, there are many concerns with freedom of expression, and the judicial system has no shortage of cases that question whether or not a specific case is supported by the First Amendment or not. Likewise, many individuals and groups may call on the government to ask that certain individuals be silenced because of hateful speech; however, it’s important to note that the First Amendment goes a long way in protecting speech such that even hateful speech is generally protected.
History of the First Amendment
To fully understand the First Amendment, we need to go back to the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in June of 1776, and on July 4 of that same year, the document was read aloud at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jefferson had been asked to pen the declaration and base it upon a document called the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which was drafted at George Mason earlier that year. Later, when the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights were created, the authors would rely heavily on themes and values from the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
After the Revolutionary War was won against the Kingdom of Great Britain, Congress decided to rewrite the Articles of Confederation, which had been the country’s original constitution, drafted in 1777. To do this, Congress brought colonial delegates together at the Constitutional Convention to discuss and rewrite the way that the country would operate.
The United States Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, but not everyone in the country was happy with it. Most importantly, Anti-Federalists like Patrick Henry and George Mason did not want a strong central government, so they fought to put in a Bill of Rights, which would give more rights to individuals.
By the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1788, the Constitution as the document was produced and ratified without a Bill of Rights. The Federalists managed to convince the Anti-Federalists that all powers that the federal government did not have as outlined specifically in the Constitution would automatically lay in the hands of states and individuals. They also said that if changes needed to be made in the future, they could be made as amendments to the original Constitution.
In fact, this is what happened. In 1789, 10 new amendments were added to the Constitution, and just as the Anti-Federalists had wanted, these 10 amendments outlined specific individual rights for the people. Collectively, the 10 amendments were called the Bill of Rights. The first of these amendments is the First Amendment that protects freedom of speech, religion, the press, assembly and the petitioning of the government.