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First Amendment rights are essential for our democratic society. The freedom of speech, assembly, press, and petition have laid the foundation for a free civilization. Most importantly, these rights allow dissent without persecution and therefore promote diversity in our country.
During the American Revolution, Britain’s tyranny oppressed those with different views. For this reason, it is clear why our Founding Fathers granted these rights; or else, people have no power relative to the government. Freedom of religion is further a First Amendment right, and a necessary part of personal identity. These rights not only protect the freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, and advance other liberties like voting, they also expand over centuries.
Ultimately, these rights protect the diverse and distinct identities of our free society. This is especially demonstrated in historical movements.
For example, women used the First Amendment as a platform to express their right to vote without oppression. The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 used speech, assembly, and petition to create the “Declaration of Sentiments” and “Petition for Universal Suffrage” calling for women’s equality. These First Amendment rights have been vital for the advancement of humanity.
Similarly, the civil rights movement depended on First Amendment freedoms. When prevailing social sentiment favored discrimination against African Americans, activists relied on the freedoms of assembly and press to spread their beliefs for equality.
For instance, in 1982 NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., protesters assembled at an NAACP meeting and voted to boycott products sold by white merchants. Although Mississippi ruled that they were liable for damages to merchants, the Supreme Court recognized that non-violent boycotts are protected regardless. Another success is the Birmingham newspaper which provided knowledge about black protests when other newspapers refused to.
In 1931, Near v. Minnesota was a milestone case that tested the freedom of the press after a journalist published a scathing article that attacked local government officials with accusations that they were involved with gangsters. The Supreme Court ruled that Minnesota’s “gag law” violated the free press provision of the First Amendment. It advanced the rights of press to a whole new level: government’s attempt to restrict the news or press from publication became prohibited unless it reveals obscenity, military secrets, or incites violence.
As a result, the expanded rights of press became an imperative method to spread beliefs and gain support for equality. But the freedom of press only goes so far.
In 1925, the Supreme Court case of Gitlow v. New York involved an arrested member of the Socialist Party. He was indicted for publishing “Left Wing Manifesto.” The Supreme Court upheld Gitlow’s conviction, claiming the article advocated for a violent overthrow of the US government and is therefore a crime. Nevertheless, freedom of press has gone a long way to protect distinct views and advance liberties.
Moreover, the First Amendment has affected the present as well. The Black Lives Matter movement relies on these freedoms in hopes of spreading their message. Social media has been particularly significant to prove injustice; videos and photos of grievances have gone viral and gained support of the nation. Protests against police brutality and racial inequality have reached millions of people. So, what may have started as a small movement transformed into a national protest.
Social media is only one method to speak out. Symbolic speech is another protected form of expression, and has been around for decades. For example, in Tinker v. Des Moines 1969, a group of students wore black armbands as a symbolic means to protest the Vietnam War. Schools took action and suspended them, but the court found these protests in no way harmed anyone. Protesters were quiet and non-disruptive in class. As a result, symbolic speech is protected.
Today, as long as students do not interfere with the rights of others or disturb class, First Amendment freedoms are guaranteed.
In fact, even the most controversial beliefs are defended. For example, in 1977 the National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie involved a group of Nazi supporters demonstrating on sidewalks of a largely Jewish village. The court found the demonstration and display of swastikas as a symbolic expression of speech, despite a 5 to 4 dissent. Clearly, even the most disputable speech is heavily protected.
However, certain limitations are justified. The First Amendment does not allow everything and anything; this risks the order and safety of society. In no way may the government control speech on the account of specific beliefs, but speech, assembly, or protest could be narrowed by an authority to a certain time, place, or manner.
For example, in 1941 Cox v. New Hampshire involved 68 Jehovah’s Witnesses who handed out leaflets while parading down a sidewalk. The government required organizers on streets to pay a fee and have a license. Without a license they were arrested. When Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed the arrest infringed on their First Amendment rights, the court rejected their notion and acknowledged the government must ensure assemblies do not interfere with the main purposes of sidewalks and streets.
Ultimately, licenses and fees are “manner” restrictions to secure order in a diverse society. Additionally, if at anytime speech spurs violence it becomes a problem.
The 1942 Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire case ruled fighting words or words that “inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” is not protected under the First Amendment. The Brandenburg v. Ohio case in 1969 added onto it, stating that any speech can be limited if it leads to imminent lawless action. This is because violence interferes with the rights and freedoms of other citizens and harms the order and stability of society.
Similarly, if assembly turns to violence, the state has a compelling interest to prevent the disturbance of peace and restrict the freedom. As important as it may be, religion is not safe from limitations too. In Oregon v. Smith 1990, Smith had used peyote, an illegal drug, for his Native American religious ceremony. Although religion is an integral part of everyday life, the court ruled no ritual or practice could interfere with the laws of the state even for religious intentions.
As demonstrated by minorities, the First Amendment is vital for the progression of human rights. It is further the foundation of a free and democratic society. However, despite heavy protections, limitations exist to ensure order. Ultimately, balance is created. The government is one side of the coin, but “we the people” are the other side.
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