Fundamental rights like freedom of religion or freedom to protest have been in the news a lot lately. In response to the recent demonstrations around the country, some legislators are trying to pass bills that would discourage or even criminalize peaceful protest, citing traffic obstructions as the reason. If these bills become laws, the Constitutional right of assembly as we know it today would be jeopardized.
So what is that right, exactly? The freedom to protest is part of the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution, which is part of the Bill of Rights: a document that enumerates fundamental rights and freedoms given to all Americans. The Bill of Rights was born out of the country’s need for greater protection of individual liberties and to shield citizens from the federal government. The First Amendment says, in full:
“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.”
The First Amendment is an essential part of our democracy, with a long and storied history. Here are five interesting facts about this incredible law:
- The First Amendment was not originally part of the Bill of Rights—it wasn’t ratified by Congress until 1791. When the Constitution was originally signed, it didn’t contain the Bill of Rights because it was considered unnecessary.
- The right to associate also prohibits the government from requiring a group to register its members and forbids the government to deny benefits on the basis of an individual’s current or past membership with a group. So whether you are a member of PETA, the KKK, or your local book club, the government has the same responsibility to help you. If you need a driver’s license or food stamps, the government has to provide them.
- The first freedoms guaranteed in this historic document were inspired by Thomas Jefferson and articulated in just 45 words by James Madison. Madison believed that the people needed their fundamental freedoms to be protected and was the government’s responsibility to do so.
- After several Supreme Court rulings, it was decided that the First Amendment applies to federal, state, and local governments, including all branches of government. However, there are limitations to free speech in the case of “clear or present danger,” according to the Supreme Court ruling in Schenck v. the United States. In that landmark case from World War I, it was determined that freedom of speech could be limited if the homeland is in imminent danger.
- The Founding Fathers believed that a free press was an essential safeguard against despotism, and integral to advancing human understanding of the sciences, arts, and humanities.
Interpretation of the First Amendment is far from easy, as court case after court case has tried to define its limits. The definitions have evolved throughout American history, and the process continues today. It remains to be seen how this fundamental right will evolve under the current administration.