The First Amendment - Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press

First Amendment and US Constitution text with legal gavel

Adopted in 1791, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects many of the civil rights associated with life as an American, including free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. It also addresses the right to protest peacefully and petition the government. It was added to the Constitution along with nine other amendments, which together became known as the Bill of Rights.

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 essence, First Amendment rights protect an individual's religious freedom, the free press, and free expression from interference by the federal government. Through more than two hundred years of court cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has been tasked with interpreting the First Amendment to determine the breadth of these fundamental rights.

What happens when a law seems to uphold the First Amendment's establishment clause but strains the free exercise clause? Does the First Amendment protect obscenity? What actions are protected by freedom of expression? Can public schools restrict a student's free speech?

This collection of articles can help you learn about how the Supreme Court answered all these questions and more concerning First Amendment freedoms.

Learn More About the First Amendment

History of the First Amendment

Although the rights embodied in the First Amendment were not included in the original draft of the United States Constitution, they were essential in its ratification. After the Constitutional Convention, several states, including New York, refused to ratify the new Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights. Legislatures in these states only agreed to sign off on the new plan for the United States government if Congress promised to add protections for freedom of speech, religion, and the press.

James Madison agreed to write this Bill of Rights, which included the First Amendment, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and due process rights. He based his draft on the Virginia Declaration of Rights written by George Mason. The Bill of Rights originally included 19 amendments, but seven were rejected by the Senate and the House of Representatives. 

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