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First Amendment to the United States Constitution
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First Amendment to the United States Constitution

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is a part of the Bill of Rights. It was conceived to prevent Congress and the U.S. Federal Government from infringing on five rights. These guarantees were that the government would not:

A mnemonic device for these guarantees is "GRASP": Grievances, Religion, Assembly, Speech and Press.

The First Amendment, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, was proposed by Congress in 1789, to be ratified by the requisite number of states in 1791. As with the remaining Amendments of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment was passed in order to answer protestations that the newly created Constitution did not include sufficient guarantees of civil liberties.

The First Amendment only explicitly disallows any of the rights from being abridged by Congress. Over time, however, the courts held that this extends to the executive and judicial branches. The Fourteenth Amendment went further, making abridging First Amendment rights unconstitutional for state, county, and local governments.

Table of contents
1 Text
2 Establishment of Religion
3 Free Exercise of Religion
4 Speech
5 Press
6 Petition and assembly
7 International significance
8 References


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.

Some clauses are known by phrases:

Establishment of Religion

The establishment clause of the First Amendment has generally been interpreted fairly widely by the courts.
Thomas Jefferson, wrote in a letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut (who were formerly taxed to support the established church in the state), that the establishment clause erected "a wall of separation between church and state." It was not, however, until the middle and later years of the twentieth century that the Supreme Court began to interpret the establishment and free exercise clauses in such a manner as to reduce the promotion of religion by government.

Financial Assistance

The Supreme Court first considered the question of financial assistance to religious organizations in Bradfield v. Roberts (1899). The federal government had funded a hospital operated by a Roman Catholic institution. In that case, the Court ruled that the funding was to a secular organization—the hospital—and was therefore permissible.

In the twentieth century, however, the Supreme Court was more restrictive of government involvement in religion. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court recognized the validity of a New Jersey statute funding student transportation to schools, whether parochial or not. Justice Hugo Black held, "The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State." Despite these stringent requirements, the New Jersey law was upheld, for it applied "to all its citizens without regard to their religious belief."

In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the Supreme Court ruled that government may not "excessively entangle" with religion, for instance by funding the latter. The case involved two state laws: one permitting religious schools to pay for the use of public school services in secular fields, and the other permitting the state to pay a percentage of the salaries of private school teachers, including teachers in religious institutions. The Supreme Court found that the government was "excessively entangled" with religion, and thereby invalidated the statutes in question. The excessive entanglement test, together with the secular purpose and primary effect tests (vide infra), form the Lemon test, which judges often use to test the constitutionality of a statute on establishment clause grounds.

The Supreme Court decided Committee for Public Education & Religious Liberty v. Nyquist; and Sloan v. Lemon in 1973. In both cases, states—New York and Pennsylvania—had enacted laws whereby public tax revenues would be paid to low-income parents so as to permit them to send students to private schools. It was held that in both cases, the state unconstitutionally provided aid to religious organizations. The ruling was partially reversed in Mueller v. Allen (1983). There, the Court upheld a Minnesota statute permitting the use of tax revenues to reimburse parents of students. The Court noted that the Minnesota statute granted such aid to parents of all students, whether they attended public or private schools.

While the Court has prevented states from financially aiding parochial schools, it has not stopped them from aiding religious colleges and universities. In Tilton v. Richardson (1971), the Court permitted the use of public funds for the construction of facilities in religious institutions of higher learning. It was found that there was no "excessive entanglement" since the buildings were themselves not religious, unlike teachers in parochial schools, and the aid came in the form of a one-time grant, rather than continuous assistance.

One of the largest recent controversies over the amendment centered on school vouchers—government aid for students to attend private (often religious) schools.

School prayer

Further important decisions came in the 1960s, when Earl Warren served as Chief Justice. One of the Court's most controversial decisions came in Engel v. Vitale, decided in 1962. The case involved a prayer written by the New York Board of Regents. Though the prayer was non-denominational, the Supreme Court deemed it necessary to strike it down. Justice Black wrote, "it is no part of the official business of government to compose official prayers for any group of American people to recite as part of a religious program carried out by the Government." The reading of the Lord's Prayer or of the Bible in the classroom by the teacher was ruled unconstitutional in 1963. Several Americans vehemently denounced the Court for its opinions. George Andrews, an Alabama politician, was referring to the Court's decisions on desegregation of public schools and Engel v. Vitale when he famously lamented, "they put the Negroes in the schools, and now they've driven God out."

In Abington Township v. Schempp, the case involving the reading of the Lord's Prayer in class, the Supreme Court introduced the "secular purpose" and "primary effect" tests, which were to be used to determine compatibility with the establishment clause. Essentially, the law in question must have a valid secular purpose, and its primary effect must not be to promote or inhibit a particular religion. Since the law requiring the recital of the Lord's Prayer violated these tests, it was struck down. The "excessive entanglement" test was added in Lemon v. Kurtzman (vide supra).

In Wallace v. Jaffree (1985), the Supreme Court struck down an Alabama law whereby students would observe daily a period of silence for the purpose of private prayer. The Court did not, however, observe that the moment of silence was itself unconstitutional. Rather, it suggested that Alabama lawmakers had passed the statute solely to advance religion, thereby violating the secular purpose test.

The 1990s were marked by controversies surrounding religion's role in public affairs. In Lee v. Wesiman (1992), the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the offering of prayers by religious officials before voluntarily attended ceremonies such as graduation. Thus, the Court established that the state could not conduct religious exercises at public occasions even if attendance was not strictly compulsory. In Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), the Court suggested that even a vote of the student body could not authorize student-led prayer prior to school events.

Recently, controversy centered on a recent ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Newdow v. United States Congress (2002), which struck down a California law providing for the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (which includes the phrase "under God") in classrooms. Each House of Congress passed resolutions reaffirming their support for the pledge; the Senate vote was 99-0 and the House vote was 416-3. The Supreme Court heard arguments on the case, but did not rule on the merits, finding instead that Newdow did not have standing to bring the suit -- hence overturning the ruling of the court of appeals.

Religious displays

The inclusion of religious symbols in public holiday displays came before the Supreme Court in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984), and again in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU (1989). In the former case, the Court upheld the public display of a crèche, ruling that any benefit to religion was "indirect, remote, and incidental." In Allegheny County, however, the Court struck down the display, which occupied a prominent position in the county courthouse and bore the words Gloria in Exclesis Deo, part of Angels We Have Heard on High, a Christian hymn.

A recent controversy surrounded Roy Moore, former Chief Justice of Alabama. Moore had in 2001 installed a monument to the Ten Commandments in the state judicial building. In 2003, he was ordered by a federal judge to remove the monument, but he refused to comply, ultimately leading to his removal from office. He argued that his right to acknowledge God was denied. It may be pointed out, however, that he retained his right to acknowledge God as a private person. It was only a violation of the establishment clause to erect a religious monument on government property; Moore was perfectly free to maintain that monument on private land. It is worth noting that the Supreme court itself has several depictions of the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, the Court refused to hear the case.

Free Exercise of Religion

The free exercise clause has often been interpreted to include two freedoms: the freedom to believe, and the freedom to act. The former liberty is absolute, while the latter often faces state restriction. Jehovah's Witnesses, a religious group, was often the target of such restriction. Several cases involving the Witnesses permitted the Court to expound the free exercise clause. The Warren Court adopted an extremely liberal view of the clause, the "compelling interest" doctrine (whereby a state must show a compelling interest in restricting religion-related activities), but later decisions have reduced the scope of this interpretation.

Jehovah's Witnesses cases

During the twentieth century, many major cases involving the free exercise clause related to Jehovah's Witnesses. Many communities directed laws against the Witnesses and their attempts to convert individuals to their religion. From 1938 to 1955, the organization was involved in over forty cases before the Supreme Court, winning a majority of them. The first important victory came in 1938, when in Lovell v. City of Griffin, the Supreme Court held that cities could not require permits for the distribution of pamphlets. In 1939, the Supreme Court decided Schneider v. Town of Irvington, in which it struck down anti-littering laws that were enforced only against Jehovah's Witnesses who were handing out pamphlets. In 1940, the Court considered Cantwell v. Connecticut; the plaintiff, a Jehovah's Witness, was charged with soliciting donations without a certificate from the Public Welfare Council. The Council was to grant the certificate only if the organization requesting it was a charity or sponsored a religious cause. The Supreme Court ruled that any law granting a public body the function of determining if a cause is religious or not violates the First Amendment.

The year 1940, however, was also marked by a loss for the Jehovah's Witnesses, in the case of Minersville School District v. Gobitis (the latter name was actually "Gobitas," but was misspelled by a clerk). The Minersville School Board had contended that the refusal of Gobitas' children to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance constituted insubordination, and then expelled them. Gobitas charged that his children's faith required them to salute none but God. Two courts ruled against the School Board after Gobitas sued, but the Supreme Court disagreed in an eight to one vote. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote that religion "does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities." He added that the flag "is the symbol of our national unity, transcending all internal differences."

The ruling in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, however, did not stand for long. In 1943, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Surpeme Court essentially reversed its previous opinion. Justice Frankfurter had, in the Gobitis case, suggested that the Witnesses attempt to reverse the School Board's policy by exercising their vote. In the Barnette case, however, Justice Robert H. Jackson suggested, "the very purpose of the Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities ... One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote." The Supreme Court did not rule that the Pledge was unconstitutional; rather, they held that students may not be compelled to recite it.

Compelling interest

The Supreme Court under Earl Warren adopted an expansive view of the free exercise clause. The Court required that states have a "compelling interest" in refusing to accommodate religiously motivated conduct as it decided Sherbert v. Verner in 1963. The case involved Adele Sherbert, an individual who was denied unemployment benefits by South Carolina because she refused to work on Saturdays as required by her faith. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the Court ruled that a law that "unduly burdens the practice of religion" without a compelling interest, even though it might be "neutral on its face," would be unconstitutional.

The "compelling interest" doctrine became much narrower in 1990, when the Supreme Court decided Employment Division v. Smith. Thus, as long as a law does not target a particular religious practice, it would normally be held to be constitutional insofarasmuch as the free exercise clause is concerned. In 1993, the Supreme Court revisited the free exercise clause when it decided Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. The city had passed an ordinance banning ritual slaughter, a practice central to the Santeria religion, while providing exceptions for some practices such as the kosher slaughter of Judaism. Since the ordinance was not "generally applicable," the Court ruled that it was subject to the compelling interest test, which it failed to meet. The Court therefore struck down the City's ordinance.

Also in 1993, Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which sought to restore the "compelling interest" standard. In City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), however, the Court struck down the provisions of the Act which forced states and local governments to provide more protections than required by the First Amendment. The Act, however, remains applicable to the federal government, which must therefore still meet the "compelling interest" standard in free exercise cases.


Freedom of speech has always had several limitations. Restrictions were often placed, for example, on seditious speech, which threatened the security of the state. The Supreme Court has recognized restrictions on speech based on the time, place and manner at or in which it is made. For instance, "fighting words," or speech that incites a breach of the peace, are not protected under the First Amendment; neither is the making of loud noises intended to disturb other individuals.


Remarkably, the Supreme Court did not consider a single case in which it was asked to strike down a federal law on the basis of the free speech clause until the twentieth century. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were at the time considered unconstitutional, as they punished speech directed against the government. By 1802, before the Supreme Court could review the laws, the Alien and Sedition Acts either expired or were repealed.

After World War I, several cases involving certain Acts limiting speech came before the Supreme Court. The Espionage Act of 1917 imposed a maximum sentence of twenty years for anyone who caused or attempted to cause "insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States." Under the Act, over two thousand prosecutions were commenced. For instance, one filmmaker was sentenced to ten years imprisonment because his portrayal of British soldiers in a movie about the American Revolution impugned the good faith of an American ally, the United Kingdom. The Sedition Act of 1918 went even farther, criminalizing "disloyal," "scurrilous" or "abusive" language against the government.

The Supreme Court was for the first time requested to strike down a law violating the free speech clause in 1919. The case involved Charles Schenck, who had during the war published leaflets challenging the conscription system then in effect. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld Schenck's conviction for violating the Espionage Act when it decided Schenck v. United States. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, writing for the Court, suggested that "the question in every case is whether the words used are in such circumstances and are of 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."

The "clear and present danger" test of Schenck was extended in Debs v. United States, again by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The case involved a speech made by Eugene V. Debs, a political activist. Debs had not spoken any words that posed a "clear and present danger" to the conscription system, but a speech in which he denounced militarism was nonetheless found to be sufficient grounds for his conviction. Justice Holmes suggested that the speech had a "natural tendency" to occlude the draft.

Thus, the Supreme Court effectively shaped the First Amendment in such a manner as to permit a multitude of restrictions on speech. Further restrictions on speech were accepted by the Supreme Court when it decided Gitlow v. New York in 1925. Writing for the majority, Justice Edward Sanford suggested that states could punish words that "by their very nature, involve danger to the public peace and to the security of the state." Lawmakers were given the freedom to decide which speech would constitute a danger.

Freedom of speech was influenced by anti-Communism during the Cold War. In 1940, Congress replaced the Sedition Act of 1918, which had expired in 1921. The Smith Act passed in that year made punishable the advocacy of "the propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force and violence." The law was mainly used as a weapon against Communist leaders. The constitutionality of the Act was questioned in the case Dennis v. United States. The Court upheld the law in 1951 by a six-two vote (one Justice, Tom Clark, did not participate because he had previously ordered the prosecutions when he was Attorney General). Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson relied on Oliver Wendell Holmes' "clear and present danger" test when he wrote for the majority. Vinson suggested that the doctrine did not require the government to "wait until the putsch is about to be executed, the plans have been laid and the signal is awaited," thereby broadly defining the words "clear and present danger." Thus, even though there was no immediate danger posed by the Communist Party's ideas, their speech was restricted by the Court.

Dennis v. United States has never been explicitly overruled by the Court, but future decisions have in practice reversed the case. In 1957, the Court changed its interpretation of the Smith Act in deciding Yates v. United States. The Supreme Court ruled that the Act was aimed at "the advocacy of action, not ideas." Thus, the advocacy of abstract doctrine remains protected under the First Amendment. Only speech explicitly inciting the forcible overthrow of the government remains punishable under the Smith Act.

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren expanded free speech protections in the 1960s, though there were exceptions. In 1968, for example, the Court upheld a law prohibiting the mutilation of draft cards in United States v. O'Brien. The Court ruled that protesters could not burn draft cards because doing so would interfere with the "smooth and efficient functioning" of the draft system.

In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that free speech rights extended to students in school while deciding Tinker v. Des Moines. The case involved a student who was punished for wearing a black armband to protest the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court ruled that the school could not restrict symbolic speech that did not cause undue interruptions of school activities. Justice Abe Fortas wrote, "state-operated schools may not be enclaves of totalitarianism. School officials do not possess absolute authority over their students. Students ... are possessed of fundamental rights which the State must respect, just as they themselves must respect their obligations to the State."

The divisive issue of flag burning as a form of protest came before the Supreme Court in 1989, as it decided Texas v. Johnson. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Gregory Johnson for burning the flag by a vote of five to four. Justice William Brennan asserted that "if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable." Many in Congress vilified the decision of the Court. The House unanimously passed a resolution denouncing the Court; the Senate did the same with only three dissents. Congress passed a federal law barring flag burning, but the Supreme Court struck it down as well in United States v. Eichman (1990). Many attempts have been made to amend the Constitution to allow Congress to prohibit the desecration of the flag. Since 1995, the Amendment has consistently mustered sufficient votes to pass in the House of Representatives, but not in the Senate. Most recently, in 2000, the Senate voted 63-37 in favor of the amendment, which fell four votes short of the requisite two-thirds majority.


The federal government and the states have long been permitted to restrict obscene or pornographic speech. The exact definition of obscenity and pornography, however, has changed over time. Justice Potter Stewart famously said, "I can't define pornography, but I know it when I see it."

When it decided Rosen v. United States in 1896, the Supreme Court adopted the same obscenity standard as had been articulated in a famous British case, Regina v. Hicklin. The Hicklin standard defined material as obscene if it tended "to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall." Thus, the standards of the most sensitive members of the community were the standards for obscenity. In 1957, the Court ruled in Roth v. United States that the Hicklin test was inappropriate. Instead, the Roth test for obscenity was "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest."

The Roth test was expanded when the Court decided Miller v. California in 1973. Under the Miller test, a work is obscene if it would be found appealing to the prurient interest by an average person applying contemporary community standards, depicts sexual conduct in a patently offensive way and has no serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Note that "community" standards—not national standards—are applied; thus, material may be deemed obscene in one locality but not in another. Child pornography is not subject to the Miller test, as the Supreme Court decided in 1982. The Court felt that the government's interest in protecting children from abuse was paramount.

Possession of obscene material in the home may not be prohibited by law. In writing for the Court in the case of Stanley v. Georgia, Justice John Marshall Harlan suggested, "if the First Amendment means anything, it means that a State has no business telling a man sitting in his own house what books he may read or what films he may watch." It is not, however, unconstitutional for the government to prevent the mailing or sale of obscene items, though they may be viewed only in private.

Libel and slander

The American prohibition on defamatory publications or speech—slander and libel—traces its origins to English law. The nature of defamation law was vitally changed by the Supreme Court in 1964, while deciding New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. The New York Times had published an advertisement indicating that officials in Montgomery, Alabama had acted violently in suppressing the protests of African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. The Montgomery Police Commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, sued the Times for libel on the grounds that the advertisement damaged his reputation. The Supreme Court unanimously overruled the $500,000 judgment against the Times. Justice William J. Brennan suggested that public officials may sue for libel only if the publisher published the statements in question with "actual malice," a difficult standard to meet.

The actual malice standard applies to both public officials and public figures, including celebrities. Though the details vary from state to state, private individuals normally need only to prove negligence on the part of the defendant.

As the Supreme Court ruled in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc (1974), opinions cannot be considered defamatory. It is thus permissible to suggest, for instance, that a lawyer is a bad one, but not permissible to declare that the lawyer is ignorant of the law: the former constitutes a statement of values, but the latter is a statement alleging a fact.

In 1988, Hustler Magazine v. Falwell extended the "actual malice" standard to intentional infliction of emotional distress in a ruling which protected a parodic caricature. In the ruling, "actual malice" was described as "knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether or not it was true."

Campaign Finance

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and related laws restricted the monetary contributions that may be made to political campaigns and expenditure by candidates. The Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the Act in Buckley v. Valeo, decided in 1976. The Court affirmed some parts of the Act and rejected others. The Court concluded that limits on campaign contributions "serve[d] the basic governmental interest in safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process without directly impinging upon the rights of individual citizens and candidates to engage in political debate and discussion." At the same time, the Court overturned the expenditure limits, which it found imposed "substantial restraints on the quantity of political speech."

Further rules on campaign finance were scrutinized by the Court when it determined McConnell v. Federal Election Commission in 2003. The case centered on the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a law that introduced several new restrictions on campaign financing. The Supreme Court upheld provisions which barred the raising of soft money by national parties and the use of soft money by private organizations to finance certain election-related advertisements. At the same time, the Court struck down the "choice of expenditure" rule, which required that parties could either make coordinated expenditures for all its candidates, or permit candidates to spend independently, but not both, further stating that a "provision place[d] an unconstitutional burden on the parties' right to make unlimited independent expenditures." The Supreme Court also ruled that the provision preventing minors from making political contributions was unconstitutional, relying on the precedent of Tinker v. Des Moines. For additional details, see campaign finance reform.


Freedom of the press, like freedom of speech, is subject to restrictions on bases such as defamation law. Restrictions, however, have been struck down if they are aimed at the political message or content of newspapers.

Taxation of the press

The Government retains the right to tax newspapers, just as it may tax other commercial products. Generally, however, taxes that focus exclusively on newspapers have been found unconstitutional. In Grosjean v. American Press Co (1936), however, the Court invalidated a state tax on newspaper advertising revenues. Similarly, some taxes that give preferential treatment to the press have been struck down. In 1987, for instance, the Court invalidated an Arkansas law exempting "religious, professional, trade and sports journals" from taxation since the law amounted to the regulation of newspaper content.

In 1991, deciding Leathers v. Medlock, the Supreme Court found that states may treat different components of the media differently, for instance by taxing cable television but not newspapers. The Court found that "differential taxation of speakers, even members of the press, does not implicate the First Amendment unless the tax is directed at, or presents the danger of suppressing, particular ideas."

Content regulation

The courts have rarely treated content-based regulation of the press with any sympathy. In Miami Herald Pub. Co. v. Tornillo (1971), the Court unanimously struck down a state law requiring newspapers criticizing political candidates to publish their responses. The state claimed that the law had been passed to ensure press responsibility. Finding that only freedom, and not press responsiblity, is mandated by the First Amendment, the Supreme Court ruled that the government may not force newspapers to publish that which they do not desire to publish.

Content-based regulation of television and radio, however, have been sustained by the Supreme Court in various cases. Since there are a limited number of frequencies for non-cable television and radio stations, the government licenses them to various companies. The Supreme Court, however, has ruled that the problem of scarcity does not permit the raising of a First Amendment issue. The government may restrain broadcasters, but only on a content-neutral basis.

Petition and assembly

The right to petition the government has been interpreted as extending to petitions of all three branches: the Congress, the executive and the judiciary. The Supreme Court has interpreted "redress of grievances" broadly; thus, it is possible for one to request the government to exercise its powers in furtherance of the general public good. Few times has Congress sought to directly limit the right to petition. In 1835, for instance, the House of Representatives adopted a rule precluding individuals from petitioning it for the abolition of slavery. The Supreme Court did not hear a case related to the rule, which was in any event abolished in 1840. During World War I, individuals petitioning for the repeal of sedition and espionage laws (vide supra) were punished; again, the Supreme Court did not rule on the matter.

The right of assembly was originally closely tied to the right to petition. One significant case involving the two rights was United States v. Cruikshank (1876). There, the Supreme Court held that citizens may "assemble for the purpose of petitioning Congress for a redress of grievances." Essentially, it was held that the right to assemble was secondary, while the right to petition was primary. Later cases, however, have expanded the meaning of the right to assembly. Hague v. CIO (1939), for instance, refers to the right to assemble for the "communication of views on national questions" and for "disseminating information."

International significance

Most provisions of the United States Bill of Rights are based on the English Bill of Rights (1689) and on other aspects of English law. The English Bill of Rights, however, does not include many of the protections found in the First Amendment. For example, while the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech to the general populace, the English Bill of Rights only protected "freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament." The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a French revolutionary document passed only weeks before Congress proposed the Bill of Rights, contains certain guarantees that are similar to the First Amendment's. For instance, it suggests that "every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom."

Freedom of speech in the United States is more extensive than in many other places in the world. While the First Amendment does not explicitly set restrictions on freedom of speech, other declarations of rights sometimes do so. The European Convention on Human Rights, for example, permits restrictions "in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary." These exceptions, however, largely correspond to those the Supreme Court has deemed permissible under the First Amendment.

The First Amendment was one of the first guarantees of religious freedom: neither the English Bill of Rights, nor the French Declaration of Rights, contains an equivalent guarantee. Neither is the United States a theocracy like Iran, nor is it an officially atheist state like the People's Republic of China, due to the constraints imposed by the First Amendment. For the most part, the United States government is secular in the conduct of its affairs. Nevertheless, secularism in the United States is more lax than, for example, in France, where the principle of laïcité prevails.


United States Bill of Rights
United States Constitution
2nd Amendment