The First Amendment is one of the most significant and widely used amendments today. In this paper I will be discussing the different parts of the First Amendment, as well as cases that coincide with each aspect. Most of the cases that are discussed will be landmark cases that made it to the Supreme Court. These cases had a huge contribution in regard to explaining aspects of the First Amendment that are not directly established. This paper will also highlight how the First Amendment allows racism and hate to be protected.
The First Amendment
The First Amendment is one of the most significant and widely used amendments today. It is what gives us our freedom as American citizens. Under the First Amendment you have the right to freedom of speech, press, religion, the right to assemble peacefully, and lastly the ability to petition the Government for a redress of grievances (FindLaw, 2019). The First Amendment falls under the Bill of Rights, which was established by the Founding Fathers. There are countries that live under a monarchy or dictatorship and if citizens decide to try to exercise these rights, they could be subject to death. As Americans we truly do take our freedom for granted. However, not everyone has the same level of freedom. We can see that illustrated back in the day, as well as today. The totalities of the First Amendment will be described such as freedom of religion, speech and press and will be accompanied by cases to support the amendments.
Totalities of the First Amendment
Freedom of Speech
The Freedom of Speech is the right to say as you please without consent, restraint, or legal punishment (Lexico, 2019). The freedom of speech aspect of the first amendment is very vague. This has created problems due to the fact that it does not specify which speech to protect and not protect. However, there are some established speeches that are not protected, such as defamation, plagiarized material, threats, and obscene material (History, 2018). There truly would be no point to protect your speech, if speech had no effect on other people. There have been many landmark cases in regard to freedom of speech. For instance, Cohen v California in 1971.
In this specific case Paul Robert Cohen was expressing his freedom of expression, which falls under the umbrella of freedom of speech. He wore a jacket that displayed the words “ Fuck the Draft,” during a time period where individuals were protesting against the Vietnam War. He was arrested with “breach of peace” due to the fact that he disturbed the peace by “offensive conduct” (The First Amendment Encyclopedia, 2016). The judge declared that his words were not directed at anyone specifically and also were not of “erotic” nature. This was not an obscene gesture and Cohen was indeed not guilty.
Freedom of Press
The freedom of press allows you to circulate news and or opinions without having to verify censorship from the government (History, 2018). Prior to the colonies obtaining independence, there were restrictions via the British government on publishing adverse opinions. Press can be a powerful tool and this is obvious through all history, not just modern day. For example, in 1971 an analyst who was part of the military by the name of Daniel Ellsberg provided documents that were classified to The New York Times.
These documents are what we know as the Pentagon Papers, which addressed involvement in Vietnam from a political and military point of view. These papers obtained knowledge that was a magnitude of what the government had been previously telling the citizens referring to the number of casualties. In New York Times Co v. United States, the newspaper was guaranteed that they could post without government interference. Regarding reporters and journalist in the press, they have the same First Amendment rights as all citizens. The catch is however, if someone illegally obtains information and provides a reporter or journalist with it, they can’t be liable since they did not directly obtain the material.
Freedom of Religion
Freedom of religion under the First Amendment protects you from a national religion, which allows you to practice whatever religion you please. There are a plethora of religions, imagine having everyone subject to one religion. The diversity of religions brings more religious perspectives, which also creates different ideas and rituals. The fact that the U.S. is so diverse is why it truly strives compared to other countries. If you are only around people just like you, you can’t mentally enhance yourself. As we all know our country was rooted with Christian practices. These practices and ideas shaped the way our laws were made.
A landmark case for freedom of religion is Reynolds vs U.S. This case took place in1879, when George Reynolds took it upon himself to have multiple wives. He was charged with “bigamy under the federal Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (Oyez, 2019). Congress stated that you can not infringe on Reynold’s religious beliefs, the only way you could do so is if polygamy itself was outlawed. The counterargument to this is that you may not choose to disobey a law due to your religious beliefs, laws take precedent.
The Right to Assemble Peacefully
The right to assemble allows you to freely express and petition the government, as well as obtain help from the government, relieving fear of punishment (U.S. Legal, 2016). However, law enforcement can limit these powers. For example, if there is a riot that gets out of hand it is the police’s obligation to secure the safety of individuals. The main time that the First Amendment was an aid for African Americans was during the Civil Rights Movements. In today’s society It is harder for minorities, mainly African Americans, to assemble without creating a threat. African Americans experience some of the most, if not the most, injustice in America. They truly will take away our freedom without hesitation.
A case regarding the right to assemble is Bates vs Little Rock. This case took place in 1960 during a time where Little Rock schools were pursuing integration. The city of Little Rock was forcing NCAAP to reveal names of members of the organization (The First Amendment Encyclopedia, 2016). The NCAAP was aboard on integration and because of this the city council wanted to know who all was involved. Bates would not release the names because he did not want to risk the safety of the members of the organization. The justice ruled that obtaining the information regarding the members was set in place to infringe upon the rights of the NCAAP. They also could not constitutionally require the association to provide members names. The authorities will try to take advantage of you, make sure you know your rights. It can only help you.
Freedom of Speech Protection in Regard to Racism and Hate
In our courts today, we allow racial and hate speech. This is allowing another race that feel as if it they are superior, to belittle another race. The First Amendment is a legal safe haven for racists. In the United States, we know that actions such as lynching, murder, assault, etc are illegal. However, the word “nigger” and confederate flags are protected by the First Amendment. Much of the laws today have this central “aim” to provide equality and everyone a fair trial. However, it is far from the case, the law only bends a certain way for certain races. Our Supreme Court is dominated by Republicans.
Beauharnais v Illinois in 1952 was a pertinent case. A group called the White Circle League provided written documentation stating that African Americans would torment white communities with “rapes, robberies, knives, guns, and marijuana” (Racism and First Amendment, 2011). This was deemed a libelous statement; however, this did not accomplish much due to the facts that racial activities were not banned. The United States does not want to give up its racial roots.
There is an International Convention on the Elimination on Racial Discrimination (CERD) that was adopted in 1994 (Racism and First Amendment, 2011). Article two states that the government make a conscious effort to bring racism to an end. Article four stated that the government would make efforts to abolish tolerance for hate speech and propaganda against one race. The U.S. government actually changed what they previously agreed on, stating that hate or racist speech is “inconsistent with existing First Amendment policies” ( Racism and the First Amendment, 2011). This treaty is the only article addressing racism directly on all government levels.
African Americans bravery during the Civil Rights Movement aided in the growth of the First Amendment. Scholar Harry Kalven Jr wrote, “We may come to see the Negro as winning back for us the freedoms the Communists seemed to have lost for us (The First Amendment Encyclopedia, 2016).
In conclusion the First Amendment overall is an aid for our freedom. However, behind the amendment actions that should not take place are still protected. The First Amendment was created in 1791, which creates problems in today’s society. Times are different now and people truly have evil intentions. A revision of the First Amendment in means of specifying certain aspects is necessary. It leaves too much of a gray area in certain topics for individuals to interpret it in ways which benefit them. Nevertheless, it is something we should be grateful for. Without the First Amendment times would be hard and you would essentially not have your own voice.
- Jr, D. L. H. (2016). Cohen v. California. Retrieved from https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/295/cohen-v-california.
- First Amendment – U.S. Constitution. (2019). Retrieved from https://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment1.html.
- History.com Editors. (2018, December 7). Freedom of the Press. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/united-states-constitution/freedom-of-the-press.
- Oyez.org (2019) Reynolds v U.S. Retrieved from https://www.oyez.org/cases
- Definitions.uslegal (2016)Freedom of assembly. Retrieved fromhttps://definitions.uslegal.com/f/freedom-of-assembly/
- Mtsu.edu. (2016). Bates v. Little Rock. Retrieved from https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/52/bates-v-little-rock [Accessed 10 Oct. 2019].