Free speech has been important to democratic societies dating back to the ancient Greeks. At its core, freedom of speech means the freedom to express one's opinions (especially political opinions) without influence by the government. In the United States, freedom of speech comes from the Constitution's First Amendment. And throughout the country's history, the Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to protect many different types of speech – including statements that don't use words at all.
What the First Amendment Says
“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…"
United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation
James Madison's version of the speech and press clauses, introduced in the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789, said: “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable."1
The special committee rewrote the language to some extent, adding other provisions from Madison's draft, to make it read: “The freedom of speech and of the press, and the right of the people peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good, and to apply to the government for redress of grievances, shall not be infringed."2
In this form it went to the Senate, which rewrote it to read: “That Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.3 Subsequently, the religion clauses and these clauses were combined by the Senate."4 The final language was agreed upon in conference.
Debate in the House is unenlightening with regard to the meaning the Members ascribed to the speech and press clause, and there is no record of debate in the Senate.5 In the course of debate, Madison warned against the dangers that would arise from discussing and proposing abstract propositions, of which the judgment may not be convinced. I venture to say, that if we confine ourselves to an enumeration of simple, acknowledged principles, the ratification will meet with but little difficulty.6 That the simple, acknowledged principles embodied in the First Amendment have occasioned controversy without end both in the courts and out should alert one to the difficulties latent in such spare language.
Insofar as there is likely to have been a consensus, it was no doubt the common law view as expressed by Blackstone. The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity. To subject the press to the restrictive power of a licenser, as was formerly done, both before and since the Revolution, is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controverted points in learning, religion and government. But to punish as the law does at present any dangerous or offensive writings, which, when published, shall on a fair and impartial trial be adjudged of a pernicious tendency, is necessary for the preservation of peace and good order, of government and religion, the only solid foundations of civil liberty. Thus, the will of individuals is still left free: the abuse only of that free will is the object of legal punishment. Neither is any restraint hereby laid upon freedom of thought or inquiry; liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive to the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects.7
Whatever the general unanimity on this proposition at the time of the proposal of and ratification of the First Amendment,8 it appears that there emerged in the course of the Jeffersonian counterattack on the Sedition Act9 and the use by the Adams Administration of the Act to prosecute its political opponents,10 something of a libertarian theory of freedom of speech and press,11 which, however much the Jeffersonians may have departed from it upon assuming power,12 was to blossom into the theory undergirding Supreme Court First Amendment jurisprudence in modern times. Full acceptance of the theory that the Amendment operates not only to bar most prior restraints of expression but subsequent punishment of all but a narrow range of expression, in political discourse and indeed in all fields of expression, dates from a quite recent period, although the Court's movement toward that position began in its consideration of limitations on speech and press in the period following World War I.13 Thus, in 1907, Justice Holmes could observe that, even if the Fourteenth Amendment embodied prohibitions similar to the First Amendment, still we should be far from the conclusion that the plaintiff in error would have us reach. In the first place, the main purpose of such constitutional provisions is 'to prevent all such previous restraints upon publications as had been practiced by other governments,' and they do not prevent the subsequent punishment of such as may be deemed contrary to the public welfare. The preliminary freedom extends as well to the false as to the true; the subsequent punishment may extend as well to the true as to the false. This was the law of criminal libel apart from statute in most cases, if not in all.14 But as Justice Holmes also observed, [t]here is no constitutional right to have all general propositions of law once adopted remain unchanged.15
But, in Schenck v. United States,16 the first of the post-World War I cases to reach the Court, Justice Holmes, in his opinion for the Court upholding convictions for violating the Espionage Act by attempting to cause insubordination in the military service by circulation of leaflets, suggested First Amendment restraints on subsequent punishment as well as on prior restraint. It well may be that the prohibition of laws abridging the freedom of speech is not confined to previous restraints, although to prevent them may have been the main purpose. “We admit that in many places and in ordinary times the defendants in saying all that was said in the circular would have been within their constitutional rights," Justice Holmes wrote, “[b]ut the character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done. The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."
Justice Holmes, along with Justice Brandeis, soon went into dissent in their views that the majority of the Court was misapplying the legal standards thus expressed to uphold suppression of speech that offered no threat to organized institutions.17 But it was with the Court's assumption that the Fourteenth Amendment restrained the power of the states to suppress speech and press that the doctrines developed.18 At first, Holmes and Brandeis remained in dissent, but, in Fiske v. Kansas,19 the Court sustained a First Amendment type of claim in a state case, and in Stromberg v. California,20 voided a state statute on grounds of its interference with free speech.21 State common law was also voided, with the Court in an opinion by Justice Black asserting that the First Amendment enlarged protections for speech, press, and religion beyond those enjoyed under English common law.22
Development over the years since has been uneven, but by 1964 the Court could say with unanimity: we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.23 And, in 1969, the Court said that the cases have fashioned the principle that the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.24 This development and its myriad applications are elaborated in the following sections.
More on Freedom of Speech
1. 1 Annals of Cong. 434 (1789). Madison had also proposed language limiting the power of the states in a number of respects, including a guarantee of freedom of the press. Id. at 435. Although passed by the House, the amendment was defeated by the Senate. See Amendments to the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the States, supra.
2. Id. at 731 (August 15, 1789).
3. The Bill of Rights: A Documentary History 1148–49 (B. Schwartz ed. 1971).
4. Id. at 1153.
5. The House debate insofar as it touched upon this amendment was concerned almost exclusively with a motion to strike the right to assemble and an amendment to add a right of the people to instruct their Representatives. 1 Annals of Cong. 731–49 (Aug. 15, 1789). There are no records of debates in the states on ratification.
6.Id. at 738.
7. 4 W. Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England 151–52 (T. Cooley, 2d rev. ed. 1872). See 3 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States 1874–86 (1833). The most comprehensive effort to assess theory and practice in the period prior to and immediately following adoption of the Amendment is L. Levy, Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History (1960), which generally concluded that the Blackstonian view was the prevailing one at the time and probably the understanding of those who drafted, voted for, and ratified the Amendment.
8. It would appear that Madison advanced libertarian views earlier than his Jeffersonian compatriots, as witness his leadership of a move to refuse officially to concur in Washington's condemnation of [c]ertain self-created societies, by which the President meant political clubs supporting the French Revolution, and his success in deflecting the Federalist intention to censure such societies. I. Brant, James Madison: Father of the Constitution 1787–1800 at 416–20 (1950). If we advert to the nature of republican government, Madison told the House, we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people. 4 Annals of Cong. 934 (1794). On the other hand, the early Madison, while a member of his county's committee on public safety, had enthusiastically promoted prosecution of Loyalist speakers and the burning of their pamphlets during the Revolutionary period. 1 Papers of James Madison 147, 161–62, 190–92 (W. Hutchinson & W. Rachal, eds., 1962). There seems little doubt that Jefferson held to the Blackstonian view. Writing to Madison in 1788, he said: A declaration that the Federal Government will never restrain the presses from printing anything they please, will not take away the liability of the printers for false facts printed. 13 Papers of Thomas Jefferson 442 (J. Boyd ed., 1955). Commenting a year later to Madison on his proposed amendment, Jefferson suggested that the free speech-free press clause might read something like: The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write or otherwise to publish anything but false facts affecting injuriously the life, liberty, property, or reputation of others or affecting the peace of the confederacy with foreign nations. 15 Papers, supra, at 367.
9. The Act, 1 Stat. 596 (1798), punished anyone who would write, print, utter or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute. See J. Smith, Freedom's Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties (1956).
10. Id. at 159 et seq.
11. L. Levy, Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History ch. 6 (1960); New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 273–76 (1964). But compare L. Levy, Emergence of a Free Press (1985), a revised and enlarged edition of Legacy of Expression, in which Professor Levy modifies his earlier views, arguing that while the intention of the Framers to outlaw the crime of seditious libel, in pursuit of a free speech principle, cannot be established and may not have been the goal, there was a tradition of robust and rowdy expression during the period of the framing that contradicts his prior view that a modern theory of free expression did not begin to emerge until the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts.
12. L. Levy, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (1963). Thus President Jefferson wrote to Governor McKean of Pennsylvania in 1803: The federalists having failed in destroying freedom of the press by their gag-law, seem to have attacked it in an opposite direction; that is, by pushing its licentiousness and its lying to such a degree of prostitution as to deprive it of all credit. . . . This is a dangerous state of things, and the press ought to be restored to its credibility if possible. The restraints provided by the laws of the States are sufficient for this if applied. And I have, therefore, long thought that a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses. Not a general prosecution, for that would look like persecution; but a selected one. 9 Works of Thomas Jefferson 449 (P. Ford ed., 1905).
13. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), provides the principal doctrinal justification for the development, although the results had long since been fully applied by the Court. In Sullivan, Justice Brennan discerned in the controversies over the Sedition Act a crystallization of a national awareness of the central meaning of the First Amendment, id. at 273, which is that the right of free public discussion of the stewardship of public officials . . . [is] a fundamental principle of the American form of government. Id. at 275. This central meaning proscribes either civil or criminal punishment for any but the most maliciously, knowingly false criticism of government. Although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history. . . . [The historical record] reflect[s] a broad consensus that the Act, because of the restraint it imposed upon criticism of government and public officials, was inconsistent with the First Amendment. Id. at 276. Madison's Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and his Report in support of them brought together and expressed the theories being developed by the Jeffersonians and represent a solid doctrinal foundation for the point of view that the First Amendment superseded the common law on speech and press, that a free, popular government cannot be libeled, and that the First Amendment absolutely protects speech and press. 6 Writings of James Madison, 341–406 (G. Hunt ed., 1908).
14. Patterson v. Colorado, 205 U.S. 454, 462 (1907) (emphasis in original, citation omitted). Justice Frankfurter had similar views in 1951: The historic antecedents of the First Amendment preclude the notion that its purpose was to give unqualified immunity to every expression that touched on matters within the range of political interest. . . . 'The law is perfectly well settled,' this Court said over fifty years ago, 'that the first ten amendments to the Constitution, commonly known as the Bill of Rights, were not intended to lay down any novel principles of government, but simply to embody certain guaranties and immunities which we had inherited from our English ancestors, and which had from time immemorial been subject to certain well-recognized exceptions arising from the necessities of the case. In incorporating these principles into the fundamental law there was no intention of disregarding the exceptions, which continued to be recognized as if they had been formally expressed.' Robertson v. Baldwin, 165 U.S. 275, 281 (1897). That this represents the authentic view of the Bill of Rights and the spirit in which it must be construed has been recognized again and again in cases that have come here within the last fifty years. Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 521–522, 524 (1951) (concurring opinion).
15. Patterson v. Colorado, 205 U.S. 454, 461 (1907).
16. 249 U.S. 47, 51–52 (1919) (citations omitted).
17. Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211 (1919); Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919); Schaefer v. United States, 251 U.S. 466 (1920); Pierce v. United States, 252 U.S. 239 (1920); United States ex rel. Milwaukee Social Democratic Pub. Co. v. Burleson, 255 U.S. 407 (1921). A state statute similar to the federal one was upheld in Gilbert v. Minnesota, 254 U.S. 325 (1920).
18. Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925); Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927). The Brandeis and Holmes dissents in both cases were important formulations of speech and press principles.
19. 274 U.S. 380 (1927).
20. 283 U.S. 359 (1931). By contrast, it was not until 1965 that a federal statute was held unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301 (1965). See also United States v. Robel, 389 U.S. 258 (1967).
21. See also Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697 (1931); Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242 (1937); DeJonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353 (1937); Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (1938).
22. Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 263–68 (1941) (overturning contempt convictions of newspaper editor and others for publishing commentary on pending cases).
23. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964).
24. Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 447 (1969).