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
African-American First Amendment heroes.
The First Amendment was written because at America's inception, citizens demanded a guarantee of their basic freedoms.
Our blueprint for personal freedom and the hallmark of an open society, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.
Without the First Amendment, religious minorities could be persecuted, the government might well establish a national religion, protesters could be silenced, the press could not criticize government, and citizens could not mobilize for social change.
When the U.S. Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787, it did not contain the essential freedoms now outlined in the Bill of Rights, because many of the Framers viewed their inclusion as unnecessary. However, after vigorous debate, the Bill of Rights was adopted. The first freedoms guaranteed in this historic document were articulated in the 45 words we have come to know as the First Amendment.
The Bill of Rights -- the first 10 amendments to the Constitution -- went into effect on Dec. 15, 1791, when the state of Virginia ratified it, giving the bill the majority of ratifying states required to protect citizens from the power of the federal government.
Justice William Brennan wrote in New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, the First Amendment provides that "debate on public issues ... [should be] ... uninhibited, robust, and wide-open."
However, Americans vigorously dispute the application of the First Amendment.
Most people believe in the right to free speech, but debate whether it should cover flag-burning, hard-core rap and heavy-metal lyrics, tobacco advertising, hate speech, pornography, nude dancing, solicitation and various forms of symbolic speech. And courts wrestle daily with First Amendment controversies and constitutional clashes.
Such difficulties are the price of freedom in a tolerant, open society.
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