Passed by Congress September 25, 1789. Ratified December 15, 1791. The first 10 amendments form the Bill of Rights.
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.
Freedom of Speech and of the Press: The First Amendment allows citizens to express and to be exposed to a wide range of opinions and views. It was intended to ensure a free exchange of ideas even if the ideas are unpopular.
Freedom of speech encompasses not only the spoken and written word, but also all kinds of expression (including non-verbal communications, such as sit-ins, art, photographs, films and advertisements). Under its provisions, the media — including television, radio and the Internet — is free to distribute a wide range of news, facts, opinions and pictures. The amendment protects not only the speaker, but also the person who receives the information. The right to read, hear, see and obtain different points of view is a First Amendment right as well.
But the right to free speech is not absolute. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government sometimes may be allowed to limit speech. For example, the government may limit or ban libel (the communication of false statements about a person that may injure his or her reputation), obscenity, fighting words, and words that present a clear and present danger of inciting violence. The government also may regulate speech by limiting the time, place or manner in which it is made. For example the government may require activists to obtain a permit before holding a large protest rally on a public street.
Freedom of Assembly and Right to Petition the Government: The First Amendment also protects the freedom of assembly, which can mean physically gathering with a group of people to picket or protest; or associating with one another in groups for economic, political or religious purposes.
The First Amendment also protects the right not to associate, which means that the government cannot force people to join a group they do not wish to join. A related right is the right to petition the government, including everything from signing a petition to filing a lawsuit.
Freedom of Religion: The First Amendment's free exercise clause allows a person to hold whatever religious beliefs he or she wants, and to exercise that belief by attending religious services, praying in public or in private, proselytizing or wearing religious clothing, such as yarmulkes or headscarves. Also included in the free exercise clause is the right not to believe in any religion, and the right not to participate in religious activities.
Second, the establishment clause prevents the government from creating a church, endorsing religion in general, or favoring one set of religious beliefs over another. As the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1947 in Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, the establishment clause was intended to erect "a wall of separation between church and state," although the degree to which government should accommodate religion in public life has been debated in numerous Supreme Court decisions since then.
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Some people say the rights protected by the First Amendment are the most important in the entire Bill of Rights, because they are listed before the other nine amendments. However, in the original version of the Bill of Rights, what is now the First Amendment came third—after proposed amendments on reapportionment and congressional pay raises. The states failed to ratify these amendments, moving the third amendment into first place.
Whatever its order in the original Bill of Rights, the First Amendment includes the rights many Americans hold most dear, and it forms the foundation of American democratic government. The five freedoms listed in the First Amendment—religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition—enable citizens to participate in the process of self-government. Together, these five rights are sometimes referred to as freedom of expression. Because the First Amendment protects the expression of deep convictions, it can also expose deep differences among the American people. Thus, the First Amendment is often at the center of the nation’s most contentious debates. Without the freedoms in the First Amendment, it would be impossible for Americans to assert any other rights they have, thus making it the most important amendment in the Bill of Rights.
Linda R. Monk, J.D., is a constitutional scholar, journalist, and nationally award-winning author. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she twice received the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award, its highest honor for law-related media. Her books include The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution, Ordinary Americans: U.S. History Through the Eyes of Everyday People, and The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide. For more than 25 years, Dr. Monk has written commentary for newspapers nationwide, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and Huffington Post. In addition, she has appeared on MSNBC, C-SPAN, and NPR.