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What is the First Amendment?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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The First Amendment is the first addition to the US Constitution, and the beginning of the ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights. The rights included in the amendment are freedom of speech, the right to a free press, freedom to practice any religion, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government to redress grievances. James Madison, who became the fourth president of the US, wrote the Bill of Rights, but he had help and inspiration in creating it. Thomas Jefferson was Madison’s mentor, and he actually convinced Madison to change his mind and add these amendments to the Constitution. They are based on the work of many of the thinkers of the Enlightenment period, such as John Locke.

There are actually several rights guaranteed to citizens in the First Amendment. Many people remember two of them: the right to free speech and the right to a free press. Both of these are fairly closely related, and do frustrate people from time to time. That people may say “anything” no matter how evil, mean, racist or otherwise, and write anything, no matter how unfair, slanted, or otherwise, can be a challenge to many who wish that certain groups would not air their opinions. Inherent in this right, however, is the ability to respond when one feels attacked or wishes to challenge the opinions of others. It has sometimes been called an advanced citizenship, which means that a government can't have rights for some without granting them for all.

There are certain exceptions to free speech and free press. Writing or speaking words that could be constituted as a threat to the American people, such as issuing a bomb threat or yelling “fire” in a theater, can quickly curtail a person's right to free speech. Other things, like seriously threatening the life of someone, particularly an elected official, may cause a person to be considered an enemy of the state.

There are other rights guaranteed in the First Amendment: the right to the free exercise of any religion, the right of peaceful assembly, and the right to petition the government to redress grievances. These rights struck at the heart of many issues that had existed while America still was under British rule. Right to peaceful assembly had been banned by some British governors, while the ability to petition the government was touch and go, and the British Government ignored most petitions. Free exercise of religion faced increasing challenges, particularly with anti-Catholic sentiment in England, and with the diverse sects of primarily Christian religions settling in the New World.

Not only were these rights under constant abuse, but speaking against British rule or writing anything negative about the British government could be considered treasonous. It was, therefore, considered wise to clarify that a new American government must make these rights available to its people. Nevertheless, though many consider the First Amendment the core of American society, there are constant arguments about what it means. This began with the founding fathers, and has continued to the present. Though the amendment seems straightforward, it has faced numerous challenges, and will likely continue to be tested.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon945444 — On Apr 13, 2014

What is symbolic speech under the first amendment?

By anon290616 — On Sep 10, 2012

I like bacon! No one ever says anything about that but if you make a comment about a politician and it's negative, boy you get your head chewed off sometimes. Why is that?

By anon264005 — On Apr 26, 2012

I work for a city in Southern California. Is it an invasion of privacy for me to use a GPS device to track the whereabouts of a coworker who is on the clock and using a city owned vehicle? My suspicion is that the coworker is abusing the system by using a city vehicle on city time doing personal business.

By anon208642 — On Aug 23, 2011

The First Amendment does not take the right to pray or to believe in God away from anybody. It prohibits the federal government from establishing or endorsing one religion. The idea of deporting people who don't embrace the Christian religion would have disturbed the founding fathers. They were primarily Christian and Jewish themselves, but that was because they hailed from countries where Judeo-Christianity was the predominant religion. Their Christianity in and of itself didn't make their governing skills any better than other countries with different religions or no religion at all.

Essentially, the US Constitution can be boiled down into one sentence: "Let's not be British about this." England *did* have a government-sponsored religion (Church of England), and a lot of citizens suffered because of it. When the US Constitution was drafted, many of the founding fathers wanted to make sure that their "new" country would be far more tolerant of other viewpoints and other religious practices. It's no coincidence that the US Constitution was written at the same time as the German Enlightenment movement was taking hold in Europe.

The First Amendment rights should also end with the unspoken words "by the government". Publishers and speakers have the right to express their opinions, but they can only expect protection from *government* censorship. There are social limits to almost every right mentioned in that amendment. While the government may not be able to force magazines like Playboy or Hustler to stop publishing nude photos, for example, private citizens can still boycott places that sell those magazines, or petition for stronger obscenity laws. There is freedom OF speech, but there is also freedom *from* speech. Hate speech or obscenity may not violate the First Amendment according to the government, but the people who are offended can still take legal action against the speech makers or the publishers if they so choose.

By anon62940 — On Jan 29, 2010

No one anywhere nor the Supreme Court has the right to take God and prayer away from anyone or anywhere. If someone moves to the US and is not a christian, then go back where you came from. We the US people do not attack others.

If God were to be feared as he should be and if our government used prayer and sought God's guidance, then we would have a true people run government. No one will ever take God and prayer away from me.

By anon56944 — On Dec 18, 2009

The First Amendment is somehow found very hopeful and helpful as it is freedom of religion to people to believing in God, but it is also very liberal in mind that since then people have started to take advantage of this amendment and use it to start their own beliefs.

God gave Adam and Eve everything they ever needed, but with limits as pertaining to the free will they had from God. They made the wrong choice from starting or wondering on what a fruit could taste like and why not take it and eat it? Well this same process of human nature has been going and going for thousands of years and it will not stop till we make the right decision!

By anon46827 — On Sep 29, 2009

Think *hard*. Doesn't it seem to you that in the case Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000). The ruling was to ban student led prayer in school (intiated by one mormon and one catholic). Based on the establishment clause. Isn't the supreme court violating the first amendment by respecting an establishment of a religion. (i.e. they removed God, which was already there, making it a respected establishment religion which is agnostic). Our rights were removed.

By traehegdirb — On Apr 10, 2009

I guess free speech also allows carl rove to call joe biden a liar.

When I heard rove call joe a liar, I wondered to myself. "hummmm..one politician calling another politician a liar...there must be a word for that."

By traehegdirb — On Apr 06, 2009

Where in the First Amendment does it grant the right to donate money to government officials or those running for office within the government?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a America Explained contributor, Tricia...
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