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By Roz Rogoff

Interpreting the First Amendment

Uploaded: Mar 7, 2015

James Madison wrote 17 Amendments to the original Constitution. Ten were ratified by the states under the name, "The Bill of Rights." The purpose of these amendments are described in a Preamble to the Bill of Rights.

"THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution."

So the Bill of Rights was originally added to the Constitution to limit Federal control over the states and increase citizen support.

Throughout the 20th Century most of the rights in the Bill of Rights, and all of the rights in the First Amendment, were expanded to include state governments and even local governments. This blog looks specifically at the rights and protections in the First Amendment.

Amendment 1
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.

Let's break down each phrase in Amendment 1 to clarify what it means and how it has been interpreted or applied over the years.

1. Congress shall make no law ? That originally meant the Federal Government. State governments were free to make whatever laws they chose until 1925 when the Supreme Court ruled that a portion of the First Amendment also applied to states.

2. . . . respecting an establishment of religion ?The government cannot mandate a national or state religion.

3. . . . or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; - Citizens may practice their religion as they choose or not practice any religion at all.

3. . . . or abridging the freedom of speech, - Citizens can criticize governmental organizations or individuals without fear of being imprisoned.

4. . . . or of the press; - Citizens can publish in print, or now, online comments critical of the government or individual office holders.

5. . . . or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, - You can get together with other people to picket but not riot.

6. . . . and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. - You cannot be arrested or incarcerated for signing a petition or writing a letter to the President or Congress or even your local City Council or Mayor, but you can be ignored.

However, freedom of speech doesn't give everyone the right to say anything at all about anyone they want to attack. The First Amendment protects citizens from government persecution, but it does not prevent law suits or civil actions. Criticizing your employer or boss can result in being fired.

Freedom of the Press doesn't mean freedom to malign. A newspaper can publish an editorial criticizing a government official, but the publisher can still be sued for slander. As long as the criticism is factual and civil, the First Amendment protects against government retaliation, but a hostile editorial might go over the line.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defends our First Amendment rights, often to the objections of citizens who believe they go too far. But the purpose of the First Amendment is to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. That in a nutshell is what the First Amendment is about. You do not have to be like everyone else; but that doesn't mean everyone else has to accept you for it.