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  • Introduction

Which government actions are subject to the First Amendment?

Freedoms of speech, of the press, of assembly, and to petition.

  • Speech on government property and in government-run institutions
  • Related rights
  • Free exercise of religion
  • The establishment clause

Bill of Rights

  • Why was the Bill of Rights added?
  • How was the Bill of Rights added to the U.S. Constitution?
  • Does the Bill of Rights apply to the states?

Stack of international newspapers (world news; news; paper)

First Amendment

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  • Public Broadcasting Service - Culture Shock - The First Amendment
  • American Library Association - First Amendment and Censorship
  • Cornell University - Legal Information Institute - First Amendment
  • Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University - First Amendment Timeline
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First Amendment , amendment (1791) to the Constitution of the United States that is part of the Bill of Rights and reads,

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 clauses of the amendment are often called the establishment clause , the free exercise clause, the free speech clause, the free press clause, the assembly clause, and the petition clause.

The First Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, originally restricted only what the federal government may do and did not bind the states. Most state constitutions had their own bills of rights, and those generally included provisions similar to those found in the First Amendment. But the state provisions could be enforced only by state courts.

Amendments 1-10 to the Constitution of the United States constitute what is known as the Bill of Rights.

In 1868, however, the Fourteenth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, and it prohibited states from denying people “liberty” without “ due process .” Since then the U.S. Supreme Court has gradually used the due process clause to apply most of the Bill of Rights to state governments. In particular, from the 1920s to the ’40s the Supreme Court applied all the clauses of the First Amendment to the states. Thus, the First Amendment now covers actions by federal, state, and local governments. The First Amendment also applies to all branches of government, including legislatures, courts, juries, and executive officials and agencies. This includes public employers, public university systems, and public school systems.

The First Amendment, however, applies only to restrictions imposed by the government, since the First and Fourteenth amendments refer only to government action. As a result, if a private employer fires an employee because of the employee’s speech, there is no First Amendment violation. There is likewise no violation if a private university expels a student for what the student said, if a commercial landlord restricts what bumper stickers are sold on the property it owns, or if an Internet service provider refuses to host certain Web sites.

Legislatures sometimes enact laws that protect speakers or religious observers from retaliation by private organizations. For example, Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans religious discrimination even by private employers. Similarly, laws in some states prohibit employers from firing employees for off-duty political activity. But such prohibitions are imposed by legislative choice rather than by the First Amendment.

The freedoms of speech , of the press , of assembly, and to petition—discussed here together as “ freedom of expression ”—broadly protect expression from governmental restrictions. Thus, for instance, the government may not outlaw antiwar speech, speech praising violence , racist speech, pro- communist speech, and the like. Nor may the government impose special taxes on speech on certain topics or limit demonstrations that express certain views. The government also may not authorize civil lawsuits based on people’s speech, unless the speech falls within a traditionally recognized First Amendment exception. This is why, for example, people may not sue for emotional distress inflicted by offensive magazine articles about them, unless the articles are not just offensive but include false statements that fall within the defamation exception ( see below Permissible restrictions on expression ).

The free expression guarantees are not limited to political speech. They also cover speech about science, religion, morality , and social issues as well as art and even personal gossip.

Freedom of the press confirms that the government may not restrict mass communication . It does not, however, give media businesses any additional constitutional rights beyond what nonprofessional speakers have.

Freedom of petition protects the right to communicate with government officials. This includes lobbying government officials and petitioning the courts by filing lawsuits, unless the court concludes that the lawsuit clearly lacks any legal basis.

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Freedom of Speech

By: History.com Editors

Updated: July 27, 2023 | Original: December 4, 2017

A demonstration against restrictions on the sale of alcohol in the united states of America.Illustration showing a demonstration against restrictions on the sale of alcohol in the united states of America 1875. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Freedom of speech—the right to express opinions without government restraint—is a democratic ideal that dates back to ancient Greece. In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees free speech, though the United States, like all modern democracies, places limits on this freedom. In a series of landmark cases, the U.S. Supreme Court over the years has helped to define what types of speech are—and aren’t—protected under U.S. law.

The ancient Greeks pioneered free speech as a democratic principle. The ancient Greek word “parrhesia” means “free speech,” or “to speak candidly.” The term first appeared in Greek literature around the end of the fifth century B.C.

During the classical period, parrhesia became a fundamental part of the democracy of Athens. Leaders, philosophers, playwrights and everyday Athenians were free to openly discuss politics and religion and to criticize the government in some settings.

First Amendment

In the United States, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech.

The First Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution . The Bill of Rights provides constitutional protection for certain individual liberties, including freedoms of speech, assembly and worship.

The First Amendment doesn’t specify what exactly is meant by freedom of speech. Defining what types of speech should and shouldn’t be protected by law has fallen largely to the courts.

In general, the First Amendment guarantees the right to express ideas and information. On a basic level, it means that people can express an opinion (even an unpopular or unsavory one) without fear of government censorship.

It protects all forms of communication, from speeches to art and other media.

Flag Burning

While freedom of speech pertains mostly to the spoken or written word, it also protects some forms of symbolic speech. Symbolic speech is an action that expresses an idea.

Flag burning is an example of symbolic speech that is protected under the First Amendment. Gregory Lee Johnson, a youth communist, burned a flag during the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas to protest the Reagan administration.

The U.S. Supreme Court , in 1990, reversed a Texas court’s conviction that Johnson broke the law by desecrating the flag. Texas v. Johnson invalidated statutes in Texas and 47 other states prohibiting flag burning.

When Isn’t Speech Protected?

Not all speech is protected under the First Amendment.

Forms of speech that aren’t protected include:

  • Obscene material such as child pornography
  • Plagiarism of copyrighted material
  • Defamation (libel and slander)
  • True threats

Speech inciting illegal actions or soliciting others to commit crimes aren’t protected under the First Amendment, either.

The Supreme Court decided a series of cases in 1919 that helped to define the limitations of free speech. Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, shortly after the United States entered into World War I . The law prohibited interference in military operations or recruitment.

Socialist Party activist Charles Schenck was arrested under the Espionage Act after he distributed fliers urging young men to dodge the draft. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction by creating the “clear and present danger” standard, explaining when the government is allowed to limit free speech. In this case, they viewed draft resistant as dangerous to national security.

American labor leader and Socialist Party activist Eugene Debs also was arrested under the Espionage Act after giving a speech in 1918 encouraging others not to join the military. Debs argued that he was exercising his right to free speech and that the Espionage Act of 1917 was unconstitutional. In Debs v. United States the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Espionage Act.

Freedom of Expression

The Supreme Court has interpreted artistic freedom broadly as a form of free speech.

In most cases, freedom of expression may be restricted only if it will cause direct and imminent harm. Shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater and causing a stampede would be an example of direct and imminent harm.

In deciding cases involving artistic freedom of expression the Supreme Court leans on a principle called “content neutrality.” Content neutrality means the government can’t censor or restrict expression just because some segment of the population finds the content offensive.

Free Speech in Schools

In 1965, students at a public high school in Des Moines, Iowa , organized a silent protest against the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to protest the fighting. The students were suspended from school. The principal argued that the armbands were a distraction and could possibly lead to danger for the students.

The Supreme Court didn’t bite—they ruled in favor of the students’ right to wear the armbands as a form of free speech in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District . The case set the standard for free speech in schools. However, First Amendment rights typically don’t apply in private schools.

What does free speech mean?; United States Courts . Tinker v. Des Moines; United States Courts . Freedom of expression in the arts and entertainment; ACLU .

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The first amendment, module 10: the first amendment.

The First Amendment protects some of our most cherished rights, including religious liberty, free speech, a free press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition our government for a redress of grievances. Together, these essential rights are connected to the freedom of conscience—protecting our ability to think as we will and speak as we think. As we examine the First Amendment’s text and history, we will explore debates over the First Amendment’s five freedoms, analyze landmark Supreme Court cases, and examine how the First Amendment has been used by groups of all perspectives to promote their vision of a more perfect Union.

Download all materials for this module as a PDF

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment.
  • Discuss the First Amendment’s speech-protective rule.
  • Examine contexts in which the government has some additional leeway to regulate speech.
  • Analyze the First Amendment’s religion clauses and explore how the Supreme Court has interpreted them over time.
  • Explore landmark free speech and press cases and examine famous quotes. 
  • Examine historical examples of different people and groups asserting their petition and assembly rights and reflect on the methods available to you today.

10.1 Activity: Five Freedoms

  • Student Instructions
  • Teacher Notes

Purpose In this activity, you will discuss the five freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment.

Process As a class, list the first words that come to mind when you hear the words “First Amendment.” What freedoms are enshrined in it?

Read the text of the Primary Source: First Amendment as a class and identify the five freedoms. Highlight, circle, and label the key freedoms and key information along with your classmates.

Your teacher will lead you through a discussion on the First Amendment as a group.

In small groups answer the following questions: 

  • Why do you think that these five freedoms were included in the First Amendment? Why are they important? Why might the Founding generation have valued them? Are there any principles (or broader theories) that connect the First Amendment’s five freedoms?
  • How does each freedom offer something distinct?
  • How do these freedoms overlap and/or reinforce one another?
  • What are some ways that you might exercise your First Amendment freedoms today?

Be prepared to discuss your answer as a class.

Launch Begin by asking students what they know about the First Amendment and what freedoms are in it. Next, display the First Amendment’s text or provide copies for all students to view. Read the words out loud. 

The First Amendment  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.

As a class, have the students identify the five freedoms, circle them, and label them for the whole group. 

Guiding Question:

  • What freedoms are in the First Amendment?

Discuss examples of how someone might exercise their First Amendment rights. This does not have to be exact, and some informal examples are great, as well. Possible examples: 

  • I don’t agree with the time my school starts, and I speak up at a school board meeting. 
  • I have a different place to worship than my friends do, or I don’t go to a place of worship at all. 
  • I am going to start my own blog to discuss changes I want to see in Congress. 
  • Our courthouse does not allow skateboarders. I am going to write a letter and then protest.

Activity Synthesis In small groups, have students reflect on why the First Amendment’s five freedoms are grouped together. Highlight any comments that identify the freedom of belief, expression, or conscience. Talk about how these five freedoms give us all the right to develop our own ideas (and cultivate our own beliefs); worship (or not) freely; communicate our ideas to other people; get together with others to discuss issues, plan activities, and engage in expressive acts like protests and parades; and petition the government. Throughout American history, many of these First Amendment rights have often been important to unpopular groups, those representing minority groups with little political power or voice from all perspectives.

Guiding Questions:

Activity Extension (optional) Now that students have a better understanding of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment, ask them what would happen if these freedoms were not protected by the Constitution? What are some of the dangers?

10.1 Primary Source: First Amendment

This activity is part of Module 10: The First Amendment from the Constitution 101 Curriculum

10.2 Video Activity: Big Ideas Behind the First Amendment

Purpose In this activity, you will learn more about the big ideas behind the First Amendment.

Process Watch the following video about the First Amendment.

Then, complete the Video Reflection: The First Amendment worksheet.

Identify any areas that are unclear to you or where you would like further explanation. Be prepared to discuss your answers in a group and to ask your teacher any remaining questions.

Launch Have students watch the video, answer the questions, and complete the Video Reflection: The First Amendment worksheet.  The goal is to make sure the students understand these four key principles of the First Amendment:

  • Freedom of conscience is an unalienable right because people have the right and duty to think for themselves.
  • Free speech makes representatives accountable to “We the People.”
  • Free speech is necessary for the discovery of truth and the rejection of falsehood.
  • Free speech allows the public discussion necessary for democratic self-government.

Activity Synthesis Engage in a classroom discussion on how free speech and religion, assembly and petition are all connected to the overarching idea of the Freedom of Conscience. Why is it so important for us to exercise our freedom to think? How are we as members of this democracy engaging in this practice in our lives? How do we stretch our perspectives by exposing ourselves to others' ideas and other viewpoints?

Activity Extension (optional) Now that students have a better understanding of the freedom of conscience, ask the students to examine your own school or community. How much diversity of thought is in your after school clubs, community centers, or even in the choices of books in your local library. Write a short review of our community’s freedom of conscience. 

10.2 Video Reflection: The First Amendment

10.3 activity: religion clauses.

Purpose The First Amendment has two clauses related to religion: one preventing the government establishment of religion (the Establishment Clause) and the other protecting the ability to freely exercise religious beliefs (the Free Exercise Clause). In this activity, you will review these clauses, why they were included in the Bill of Rights, the issues they address, and how the Supreme Court has interpreted them over time. 

Process Read your assigned interpretations:

  • Text of the Constitution
  • Common Interpretation: The Establishment Clause
  • Common Interpretation: Free Exercise Clause

Complete the Activity Guide: Religion Clause s worksheet. Your teacher will lead you in a group, explain your assigned clause, and build a deeper understanding of both clauses and how they work together or in conflict with one another. 

Finally, as a class read Info Brief: Kennedy v. Bremerton School District Case then join in a group discussion on modern cases today and constitutional hypotheticals . 

Launch Divide the class into small groups of 3-4 and assign half the groups to read the Establishment Clause Common Interpretation Essay and the other half of the groups will read the Free Exercise Clause Common Interpretation Essay. Students will work in groups to complete the worksheet and prepare to share a summary.

Activity Synthesis Jigsaw the groups, have them share their summaries and collectively identify the big idea behind each clause, then discuss as a class. Questions include:

  • How do the big ideas found in the essays connect or compare to one or all of the four big ideas from the video?
  • How are these two clauses in the Constitution at odds? Can you give examples?
  • What modern cases have come to light that are testing one or both of these clauses?

Large Group Discussion: Hypos This is a great class to engage in hypotheticals and a civil dialogue. After students complete the sections up to this part, engage in a large class discussion on the following constitutional question presented in the Kennedy case.  Assign students to read about Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. Then lead a discussion with the following hypothetical questions. This is a great opportunity to explore discussion methods that allow for student voice and agency with techniques like the Fishbowl method or the Harkness method. See the Civil Dialogue Toolkit for more tools to build this skill. 

Kennedy Case Scenario(s) :  

  • Under this ruling, can a teacher give a brief, silent prayer before eating a snack at the front of the classroom? 
  • What if the teacher prays aloud?
  • What if the students are not in the classroom?
  • What if a group of students stopped back in the classroom during recess?
  • What if the teacher invites students to join the teacher in prayer on a voluntary basis?
  • What if students join the teacher voluntarily without the teacher asking them? Can they join the teacher? Does the teacher have a constitutional obligation to tell them not to join?
  • What if the teacher prays in the teachers lounge?
  • Does the age of the students and/or audience affect how you consider these hypotheticals? 

Activity Extension (optional) Now that students have a better understanding of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, answer the following questions: 

  • Why did the Founding generation include the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause in the Bill of Rights? 
  • How have the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause shaped the role of religion in our government and society over time? 

10.3 Info Brief: Kennedy v. Bremerton School District Case

10.3 activity guide: religion clauses, 10.4 activity: speech quotation analysis.

Purpose In this activity, you will examine free speech quotes from landmark Supreme Court cases and compare them to the big ideas shared in the video. 

Process For background on the legal framework for analyzing First Amendment Speech and Press Clauses, read the following interpretation:

First Amendment: Speech Clause and the Press Clause

  • Common Interpretation

Analyze the First Amendment Quotes provided to you and explore longer excerpts in the Founders’ Library to better understand the context for them and the development of free speech and a free press in America.  

In your group, complete the following tasks on the Activity Guide: Speech Quotation Analysis worksheet.

  • Define any words that you do not understand.
  • Summarize each quotation and write one to two sentences explaining it in your own words.
  • Explain how the quote connects to the broader conclusion that the Supreme Court reached in the case.

Think about the big ideas from the First Amendment instructional video. Draw any connections to the four First Amendment principles highlighted in the video. Explain the connections.

As a reminder, here are the four big ideas:

Be prepared to share key point(s) and draw connections to what you explored in the videos and primary sources. 

Launch Divide the class into groups prior to class and have them complete the readings.

Students will analyze the quotations supplied and explore longer excerpts in the Founders’ Library to better understand it in the context of free speech over time in America. Teachers can project the quote on the board for all to view and/or provide students with a copy of the First Amendment Quotes handout. Using the provided Activity Guide: Speech Quotation Analysis worksheet, students will share key points of the longer excerpts with their classmates and draw connections to what they explored in the videos and primary sources from each group that were examined.   

  • Schenck v. United States (1919)
  • Abrams v. United States (1919)
  • West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
  • New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)
  • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969)
  • Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)
  • New York Times Co. v. United States (1971) (The Pentagon Papers Case)
  • Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988)
  • Texas v. Johnson (1989)

Activity Synthesis The Founding generation believed that

“freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.”

Justice Brandeis, Whitney v. California

Ask students the following questions:

  • Why does the First Amendment protect free speech and a free press?
  • How does free speech ensure democratic self-governance?
  • How does this quote relate to Justice Holmes’s account of a “marketplace of ideas” and its importance to free speech?
  • Are you persuaded by Brandeis and Holmes? What are the strengths of their visions? What are the weaknesses?
  • Does free speech promote tolerance? Why or why not?
  • How does social media influence your assessment of the First Amendment visions of Holmes and Brandeis?

Activity Extension (optional) Now that students have a better understanding of the First Amendment’s protections for free speech and a free press, ask the following question:

  • When does the government have greater leeway to regulate speech? Hint: Check out the Common Interpretation essay on Freedom of Speech and Press .

10.4 Activity Guide: Speech Quotation Analysis

10.4 first amendment quotes, 10.5 activity: assembly and petition.

Purpose But wait, there is more in the First Amendment! The First Amendment also protects the right to assemble and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. These are two distinct rights. First, the right to assemble protects our right to gather together with others in groups—whether as part of a political meeting, religious gathering, street protest, or parade. And second, the right to petition goes to our right to join together with others to share our collective views with the government—often by highlighting problems and suggesting ways of fixing them. 

Process Examine the primary source assigned to you and your partner, and complete the Activity Guide: Assembly and Petition worksheet. 

Review your responses with a classmate who examined the same primary source and be prepared to share with your class the connection to assembly and petition.

Launch Break students into pairs and assign each team a primary source. Have each student examine the primary source and then discuss with their partner and complete the worksheet.  Information Sheet With All Excerpts:

  • Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery to the First Congress (1790).
  • The Gag Rules Debate (1835-1840).
  • Seneca Falls Declaration (1848).
  • Proceedings of the State Convention of Colored People, Held at Albany, New York (1851).
  • Frederick Douglass, Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston (1860).

Activity Synthesis Once each team has completed the worksheet, have them share with the larger group some key concepts from the reading.

  • Identify the author(s) and year.
  • Answer how the author(s) use assembly or petition rights to promote change.
  • Describe the types of changes the author(s) advocate.
  • Cite 1-2 quotes as evidence for the argument. Why did you pick these two?

Note for the class when there are similarities between groups that had the same primary source and differences. 

Ask students if they can find any connections between these sources and a modern day debate in our country.   Activity Extension (optional) Now that students have a better understanding of assembly and petition, ask students to explore news articles or segments in media that present the Assembly Clause in action. Is it presented as negative or positive? What was the group and what was their main message? What part of the government were they appealing to? 

10.5 Activity Guide: Assembly and Petition

10.5 primary source: frederick douglass, plea for freedom of speech in boston (1860), 10.5 primary source: petition from the pennsylvania society for the abolition of slavery to the first congress (1790), 10.5 primary source: proceedings of the state convention of colored people, held at albany, new york (1851), 10.5 primary source: seneca falls declaration (1848), 10.5 primary source: the gag rules debate (1835-1840), 10.6 activity: exit ticket reflection.

Process To complete this module, write a short paragraph about free speech as it relates to social media and be prepared to share it in class.

Remember the rule from Brandenburg v. Ohio : Generally speaking, the government may punish if it is intended to and likely to cause imminent lawless action. In this activity, you will reflect on whether such a speech-protective rule works in the age of social media.

Read this article from The Atlantic by Jeffrey Rosen: Elon Musk Is Right That Twitter Should Follow the First Amendment .

Write a short paragraph in response to the following question: Do you think that social media companies should follow the same guidelines of the First Amendment as the government does? As a reminder, social media companies do not have to follow standard First Amendment rules because the First Amendment only applies to the government, not to private companies, which can create their own guidelines or policies with respect to how their platform is used and how their business is run. List three pros and three cons as part of your short paragraph response.

10.7 Test Your Knowledge

Congratulations for completing the activities in this module! Now it’s time to apply what you have learned about the basic ideas and concepts covered.

Complete the questions to test your knowledge.

This activity will help students determine their overall understanding of module concepts. It is recommended that questions are completed electronically so immediate feedback is provided, but a downloadable copy of the questions (with answer key) is also available.

10.7 Interactive Knowledge Check: First Amendment: Speech, Press, Religion, Assembly, and Petition

10.7 printable knowledge check: first amendment: speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition, previous module, module 9: the judicial system and current cases, next module, module 11: the fourth amendment.

The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizures of our person, our house, our papers, and our effects. In many cases, this amendment governs our interactions with the police. Before the government—including police officers—can search your home or seize your property, it needs a good reason. This is the big idea behind the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The government needs particularized suspicion—a reason that’s specific to each suspect—before it can get a warrant. Broadly speaking, our Constitution says that the police s...

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First Amendment – Freedom of Speech

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).

1735 Truth Is A Defense Against Libel Charge

New York printer John Peter Zenger is tried on charges of seditious libel for publishing criticism of the royal governor. English law – asserting that the greater the truth, the greater the libel – prohibits any published criticism of the government that would incite public dissatisfaction with it. Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, convinces the jury that Zenger should be acquitted because the articles were, in fact, true, and that New York libel law should not be the same as English law. The Zenger case is a landmark in the development of protection of freedom of speech and the press.

1787 Federalist Papers’ Publication Starts

The first of 85 essays written under the pen name Publius by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay begin to appear in the New York Independent Journal. The essays, called the Federalist Papers, support ratification of the Constitution approved by the Constitutional Convention on Sept. 17, 1787. In Federalist Paper No. 84, Hamilton discusses “liberty of the press.”

1791 First Amendment Is Ratified

The First Amendment is ratified when Virginia becomes the 11th state to approve the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The amendment, drafted primarily by James Madison, guarantees basic freedoms for citizens: freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.

1798 Alien And Sedition Acts Signed Into Law

While the nation’s leaders believe an outspoken press was justified during the war for independence, they take a different view when they are in power. The Federalist-controlled Congress passes the Alien and Sedition Acts. Aimed at quashing criticism of Federalists, the Sedition Act makes it illegal for anyone to express “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against Congress or the president.

The United States is in an undeclared war with France, and Federalists say the law is necessary to protect the nation from attacks and to protect the government from false and malicious words. Republicans argue for a free flow of information and the right to publicly examine officials’ conduct.

1836 Efforts To Stifle Debate About Slavery Unsuccessful

As abolitionists develop the tactic of submitting many antislavery petitions to Congress, proslavery members of the U.S. House of Representatives adopt “gag” rules that bar such petitions from being introduced and debated. In 1844, former President John Quincy Adams, then a representative from Massachusetts, leads the effort to repeal these rules.

1859 ‘On Liberty’ Is Published

British philosopher John Stuart Mill publishes the essay On Liberty , arguing that only through the free exchange of ideas, even offensive ones or ones held by a minority of individuals, can society find “truth.”

1864 Lincoln Orders Two Newspapers Shut

President Abraham Lincoln orders Union Gen. John Dix to stop publication of the New York Journal of Commerce and the New York World after they publish a forged presidential proclamation calling for another military draft. The editors also are arrested. After the authors of the forgery are arrested, the newspapers are allowed to resume publication.

1873 Circulation Of Birth Control Information Outlawed

An “Act of the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” is passed by Congress. The act, more commonly known as the Comstock Act – after anti-obscenity activist Anthony Comstock – makes it a crime to publish, distribute or possess information about contraception or abortion, or to distribute or possess devices or medications used for those purposes.

Lawmakers were responding to increasing concern about abortion, the institution of marriage, and the changing role of women in society.

1917 Congress Passes Espionage Act Of 1917

With World War I being fought, President Woodrow Wilson proposes the Espionage Act of 1917 to protect the country from internal warfare propaganda. Congress passes the act, which makes it a crime to intentionally interfere with military forces, recruiting or enlistment or “cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States.” Punishment is a maximum fine of $10,000, a maximum jail term of 20 years, or both. The act also bans any mailings urging treason.

1918 Sedition Act Of 1918 Punishes Critics Of WWI

An amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act is passed by Congress. It goes much further than its predecessor, imposing severe criminal penalties on all forms of expression that are critical of the government, its symbols, or its mobilization of resources for World War I. Ultimately, about 900 people will be convicted under the law. Hundreds of noncitizens will be deported without a trial; 249 of them, including anarchist Emma Goldman, will be sent to the Soviet Union.

1919 ‘Clear And Present Danger’ Exception Established

In Schenck v. United States , the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, upholds the conviction of Socialist Charles Schenck for conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act by attempting to distribute thousands of antiwar leaflets to U.S. servicemen. While acknowledging that the First Amendment under normal circumstances might protect Schenck’s activities, the Court holds that in special circumstances, such as wartime, speech that poses a “clear and present danger” can be restricted. The Court likens the ideas expressed in Schenck’s leaflets to “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

A few days later, in another opinion by Holmes, the Court will uphold Socialist Eugene V. Debs’ conviction, finding that his speech also poses a “clear and present danger” of undermining war recruitment and is not protected by the First Amendment.

1919 ‘Marketplace Of Ideas’ Concept Defined

In his dissent from the majority opinion in Abrams v. United States (upholding the Espionage Act convictions of a group of antiwar activists), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes coins his famous “marketplace of ideas” phrase to explain the value of freedom of speech. He said that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas … the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

Over the years, Holmes’ “marketplace” concept, and the idea that more is better when it comes to competing ideas, has been a consistent theme in First Amendment cases.

1925 Court: First Amendment Applies To States’ Laws

In Gitlow v. New York , the U.S. Supreme Court concludes that the free speech clause of the First Amendment applies not just to laws passed by Congress, but also to those passed by the states.

1926 Mencken Arrested For ‘Indecent Literature’

H.L. Mencken is arrested in Boston for distributing copies of his American Mercury magazine, which contains a story with a prostitute as a central character. Censorship groups in Boston say the magazine is obscene and order Mencken’s arrest for selling “indecent literature.”

1927 Criminal Syndicalism Law Constitutional

In Whitney v. California , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that California’s criminal syndicalism law is constitutional. A member of the state’s Communist Labor Party was prosecuted under the law, which barred advocating, teaching or aiding the commission of a crime, including “terrorism” as a way to achieve change in industrial ownership or political change. The Court says that freedom of speech is not an absolute right.

1931 Court: Symbolic Expression Of Ideas Also Protected

In Stromberg v. California , the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates the state court conviction of a 19-year-old member of the Young Communist League for displaying a red flag as “an emblem of opposition to the United States government.” The Court rules that the woman’s nonverbal, symbolic expression of her antigovernment opinions is protected just as are any words that she might write or speak to express those opinions.

1931 Prior Restraint Ruled Unconstitutional

Near v. Minnesota is the first U.S. Supreme Court decision to invoke the First Amendment’s press clause. A Minnesota law prohibited the publication of “malicious, scandalous, and defamatory” newspapers. It was aimed at the Saturday Press, which had run a series of articles about corrupt practices by local politicians and business leaders. The justices rule that prior restraints against publication violate the First Amendment, meaning that once the press possesses information that it deems newsworthy, the government can seldom prevent its publication. The Court also says the protection is not absolute, suggesting that information during wartime or obscenity or incitement to acts of violence may be restricted.

1937 Court: First Amendment Protects ‘Peaceable Assembly’

In De Jonge v. Oregon , the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of Dirk De Jonge for participating in a Communist Party political meeting, holding that “peaceable assembly for lawful discussion cannot be made a crime.” That right, the Court finds, is not dependent upon whether one agrees with the ideas being discussed by the people assembled.

1940 Ban On Religious Solicitation Struck Down

In Cantwell v. Connecticut , the U.S. Supreme Court holds that two Jehovah Witnesses’ rights of free speech and free exercise of religion were violated when they were arrested for proselytizing in a Catholic neighborhood. The Court says the solicitation law, which allows a state official to refuse a permit based on religious grounds, is unconstitutional. The Court also overturns a breach of peace conviction, saying the pair’s message was protected religious speech. The case is the first to extend the free exercise of religion clause to the states and to establish the ‘time, manner and place’ rule, which says the state can regulate the free exercise right to ensure it is practiced in a reasonable time, manner and place.

1940 Flag Salute Requirement Is Upheld

In Minersville School District v. Gobitis , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Pennsylvania flag-salute law after a challenge by a Jehovah’s Witness family whose two children were expelled for refusing to salute the flag. They believe the salute is forbidden by biblical commands. The Court says the flag is a symbol of national unity, which is the “basis of national security.”

1942 ‘Fighting Words’ Exception Established

In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the conviction of a Jehovah’s Witness who had called a police officer a “damned fascist.” The Court rules that there are certain words that “by their very utterance inflict injury” and are of “such slight social value” that they are not welcome in the marketplace of ideas. This category of speech, named “fighting words” by the Court, is not protected by the First Amendment. Consequently, the speaker may be prosecuted.

1943 Court: Required Flag Salute Violates First Amendment

In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette , the U.S. Supreme Court overrules its decision in Minersville School District v. Gobitis and decides that a West Virginia law requiring students to salute the American flag violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment. “Compulsory unification of opinion,” the Court says, is “antithetical to First Amendment values.”

1947 Hatch Act Upheld; Dissent Says It Violates 17th Amendment

In United Public Workers v. Mitchell , the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the Hatch Act, a federal law that prohibits federal employees from participating in many electoral activities does not violate the First Amendment. In a strong dissent, Justice Hugo Black argues that the law muzzles several million citizens and threatens popular government, because it deprives citizens of the right to participate in the political process.

Such limitations, he argues, would be inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition. Moreover, Black finds that the Hatch Act would violate, or come dangerously close to violating, Article I and the 17th Amendment, which protect the right of the people to vote for their representatives in the House and Senate and to have their votes counted.

1949 Scope Of ‘Fighting Words’ Doctrine Limited

In Terminiello v. Chicago , the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of Father Arthur Terminiello for disturbing the peace. He was convicted after giving a controversial speech that criticized various racial and political groups. Several disturbances by protesters occurred after the speech. The Court says “fighting words” can be restricted only when they are “likely to produce a clear and present danger.” Justice William O. Douglas writes that free speech may “best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

1952 Justices Uphold Group Libel Law

In Beauharnais v. Illinois , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the conviction of a white supremacist for passing out leaflets that characterized African Americans as dangerous criminals. The “group libel” law under which Joseph Beauharnais was prosecuted makes it a crime to make false statements about people of a particular “race, color, creed or religion” for no other reason than to harm that group. The Court rules that libel against groups, like libel against individuals, has no place in the marketplace of ideas.

1957 Obscenity Exception To First Amendment Established

In Roth v. United States , the U.S. Supreme Court decides that it is not a violation of the First Amendment for the government to regulate, or even criminalize, speech that is “obscene,” because, just like libel and “fighting words,” obscene speech is “utterly without redeeming social importance.” The Court says that in defining obscenity, the government must consider “contemporary community standards.” What was “obscene” 50 years ago may not be in today’s society.

1958 Court Protects ‘Free Association’ In NAACP Case

In NAACP v. Alabama , the U.S. Supreme Court holds that when Alabama state officials demanded that the NAACP hand over its membership list, the members’ right of “free association” was violated. Although no such right is specifically included in the First Amendment, the Court says it is a necessary extension of the rights to free speech and free assembly: “It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the ‘liberty’ assured by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech.”

1959 No Protection From Congressional Inquiry

The U.S. Supreme Court finds professor Lloyd Barenblatt’s First Amendment rights were not violated when he was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about his religious and political beliefs before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In Barenblatt v. United States , the Court says that such questions are legitimate when the investigation’s goal is to “aid the legislative process” and to protect important government interests.

1961 Symbolic Speech Of Civil Rights Protesters Protected

In Garner v. Louisiana , the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the convictions of 16 African American demonstrators for disturbing the peace in three lunch counter sit-ins at all-white restaurants in Baton Rouge, La., to protest segregation. The cases were consolidated under Garner v. Louisiana. Referring to earlier court opinions protecting symbolic speech, Justice John Harlan explains that a sit-in demonstration “is as much a part of the free trade of ideas as is verbal expression.”

1964 Court Establishes ‘Actual Malice’ Standard

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan , the U.S. Supreme Court establishes the “actual malice” standard when it reverses a civil libel judgment against the New York Times. The newspaper was sued for libel by Montgomery, Ala.’s police commissioner after it published a full-page ad that criticized anti-civil rights activities in Montgomery. The court rules that debate about public issues and officials is central to the First Amendment. Consequently, public officials cannot sue for libel unless they prove that a statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning it was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

1966 Loyalty Oath Is Struck Down

In Elfbrandt v. Russell , the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates an Arizona law requiring state employees to take a loyalty oath. Anyone who took the oath and then became a member of the Communist Party or any other group that advocated the violent overthrow of the government could be prosecuted for perjury and fired. The Court says the law violates the due process clause by infringing on the right of free association. The Court holds that the law is too broad by punishing a person who joins a group that has both legal and illegal purposes but does not subscribe to the illegal purpose.

1966 Smith Act Is Found Constitutional

In Dennis v. United States , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the convictions of 12 Communist Party leaders who were convicted under the Smith Act of 1940, formally known as the Alien Registration Act. The law makes it illegal to teach or advocate the overthrow or destruction of the U.S. government, or publish any materials or organize a group that endorses such action. The majority writes that the “existence of the conspiracy” creates “a clear and present danger.”

1968 Limits Placed On Symbolic Speech Right

In United States v. O’Brien , the U.S. Supreme Court lets stand the conviction of an activist who burned his draft card to protest the Vietnam War. Although the Court admits that the law against destroying a draft card does limit speech, it rules that the limit is acceptable because it serves an important government interest (i.e., the smooth operation of the draft during wartime) and is “content-neutral,” meaning that it is not meant to punish any particular point of view or opinion.

1968 Teacher’s Free Speech Right Upheld

The U.S. Supreme Court decides that a public school teacher’s free speech right was violated when he was fired for writing a letter to the newspaper criticizing how money was divided between athletics and academics. The justices say in Pickering v. Board of Education that public school teachers are entitled to some First Amendment protection and that the teacher was speaking out more as a citizen than as a public employee when he wrote the letter.

1969 Students’ Right To Symbolic Speech Upheld

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the school board was wrong to suspend three students who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The Court finds that the students’ passive protest posed no risk of disrupting school activities. “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the Court’s opinion says.

1969 Private Ownership Of Obscene Material Protected

In Stanley v. Georgia , the U.S. Supreme Court finds unconstitutional a Georgia obscenity law that prohibits the possession of such material. The Court rules that the Constitution “protects the right to receive information and ideas, regardless of their social worth, and to be generally free from governmental intrusions into one’s privacy and control of one’s thoughts.”

1969 Advocacy Of Violence Is Protected Speech Except In Rare Circumstances

In Brandenburg v. Ohio , the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader under an Ohio law prohibiting speech that calls for crime or violence as a way of winning political change. The Court holds that unless the speaker incites his listeners to “imminent lawless action,” the speech is protected by the First Amendment.

1971 Antiwar Expression Is Ruled Protected Speech

In Cohen v. California , the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of a man convicted of disturbing the peace for wearing a jacket bearing a vulgarism about the draft. The Court concludes that the expression, however crude, did not pose enough of a risk of inciting disobedience to override his First Amendment right to express his opposition to the Vietnam War.

1971 Newspapers Win Pentagon Papers Case

The New York Times and the Washington Post obtain secret Defense Department documents that detail U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the years leading up to the Vietnam War. Citing national security, the U.S. government gets temporary restraining orders to halt publication of the documents, known as the Pentagon Papers. But, acting with unusual haste, the U.S. Supreme Court finds in New York Times v. United States that prior restraint on the documents’ publication violates the First Amendment. National security concerns are too speculative to overcome the “heavy presumption” in favor of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press, the Court says.

1972 Court: No Reporter’s Privilege Before Grand Juries

Branzburg v. Hayes is a landmark decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court rejects First Amendment protection for reporters called before a grand jury to reveal confidential information or sources. Reporters argued that if they were forced to identify their sources, their informants would be reluctant to provide information in the future. The Court decides reporters are obliged to cooperate with grand juries just as average citizens are. The justices do allow a small exception for grand jury investigations that are not conducted or initiated in good faith.

1973 Court: States Can Regulate Obscene Exhibits

In Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Georgia injunction against the showing of allegedly obscene films at an adult movie theater that allowed only patrons at least 21 years old. The Court finds that “legitimate state interests,” such as preserving quality of life and public safety, are at stake in regulating commercialized obscenity even if the exhibits are limited to consenting adults.

1973 Definition Of Obscenity Is Clarified

In Miller v. California , the U.S. Supreme Court establishes a new definition of obscenity, setting out a three-part test for judging whether material is obscene: (a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

1976 Money Spent In Political Campaigns Considered Speech

When Congress tries to limit expenditures in political campaigns, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Buckley v. Valeo , invalidates provisions that restrict candidates’ ability to spend their own money on a campaign, limit campaign expenditures by an outside group, and limit total campaign spending. The Court compares spending restrictions with restrictions on “political speech.” The majority reasons that discussion of public issues and political candidates are integral to the U.S. political system under the Constitution. The Court says government-imposed limits on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication reduces “the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.”

1976 Justices Protect Commercial Speech

In Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council , the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a state law that forbids pharmacists from including the prices of prescription drugs in their ads because it is unprofessional conduct. Although such information does not convey an idea other than proposing that a purchase be made, the Court finds that commercial speech enjoys the same First Amendment protection as noncommercial speech.

1977 Court Allows Publication Of Juvenile’s Identity

In Oklahoma Publishing Company v. District Court , the U.S. Supreme Court finds that when a newspaper obtains the name and photograph of a juvenile involved in a juvenile court proceeding, it is unconstitutional to prevent publication of the information, even though the juvenile has a right to confidentiality in such proceedings. A similar ruling will be made by the court two years later, in Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Company , when the Court finds that a newspaper’s First Amendment right takes precedence over a juvenile’s right to anonymity.

1978 Nazis Permitted To March In Skokie, Ill.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidates a city law passed in Skokie, Ill., home to 5,000 Holocaust survivors, to prevent a neo-Nazi group from holding a march there. The Court rules in Collin v. Smith that the group should be permitted to march in their uniforms, distribute anti-Semitic leaflets and display swastikas. The court does not deny the group’s symbols are offensive to many observers, but concludes that “public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” The U.S. Supreme Court will refuse to review the case.

1978 FCC Can Regulate Indecent Speech

The U.S. Supreme Court, in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation , allows the Federal Communications Commission to regulate indecent speech broadcast over the air. The Court says the FCC can channel broadcasts that contain indecent language to late-night hours, when children are less likely to be listening.

1980 Court Establishes Commercial Speech Test

In Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission , the U.S. Supreme Court decides that a state ban on promotional advertising by the electric utility is unconstitutional. The ruling sets up a four-part test to decide when commercial speech can or cannot be regulated: (1) It must not be misleading or involve illegal activity (2) The government interest advanced by the regulation must be significant (3) The regulation must directly advance the government interest (4) The regulation must be limited to serving the asserted government interest.

1982 School Board Cannot Ban Library Books

In Board of Education v. Pico , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a school board’s decision to remove books from the school library based simply on their content violates the First Amendment’s free speech right. The Court says the First Amendment protects the right to receive information and ideas. The justices allow that books that are “pervasively vulgar” or educationally unsuitable can be removed.

1982 Justices Rule Child Porn Not Protected

In New York v. Ferber , the U.S. Supreme Court holds that the First Amendment does not protect child pornography. Child pornography joins certain categories of speech – libel, “fighting words,” words that present a “clear and present danger” of violence, and obscene material – that are considered to have such negative consequences that it is acceptable for the government to restrict them.

1983 Public Employees’ Free Speech Right Defined

In Connick v. Myers , a landmark free-speech ruling for public employees, the U.S. Supreme Court says that an assistant district attorney’s free speech right was not violated when she was fired for distributing a questionnaire about internal office practices to fellow prosecutors. At least one of Myers’ questions related to a matter of public concern: whether assistant prosecutors felt pressured to work in political campaigns. But, relying on its 1968 Pickering ruling, the Court decides that the employer’s interest in a disruption-free workplace outweighs the employee’s right to comment on an issue of public concern.

1985 Anti-Pornography Law Is Struck Down

In American Booksellers Association v. Hudnut , the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals strikes down an Indianapolis anti-pornography law. The law had not used the court’s guidelines for deciding what is “obscene” material. The court finds that the law unconstitutionally targeted a certain viewpoint and allowed the government to decide which ideas are good or bad.

1986 Court: Student’s Lewd Speech Not Protected

In Bethel School District v. Fraser , the U.S. Supreme Court decides that a high school senior’s free speech right was not violated when he was disciplined for making a lewd speech at an assembly. Previously, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District , the justices had said students do not “shed their constitutional rights” at the schoolhouse door. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger writes that schools can prohibit lewd speech because it is inconsistent with the “fundamental values of public school education.”

1988 Court Allows Censorship Of School Publications

In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that public school administrators can censor speech by students in publications (or activities) that are funded by the school – such as a yearbook, newspaper, play, or art exhibit – if they have a valid educational reason for doing so.

1989 Court: Flag Burning Is Protected Symbolic Speech

In Texas v. Johnson , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that burning an American flag is protected symbolic speech. Gregory Lee Johnson burned the flag outside Dallas City Hall to protest Reagan administration policies. The justices find that his actions fall into the category of expressive conduct and have a political nature. Speech cannot be prohibited simply because an audience takes offense to certain ideas, the Court says.

1990 Flag Protection Act Ruled Unconstitutional

In U.S. v. Eichman , the U.S. Supreme Court decides that the 1989 Flag Protection Act is unconstitutional. The law provided penalties of up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for anyone who “knowingly mutilates, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon” any U.S. flag. The justices rule that the right to free expression supersedes protection of the flag as a national symbol. Justice William J. Brennan writes: “Punishing desecration of the flag dilutes the very freedom that makes this emblem so revered, and worth revering.”

1991 Media Coverage Limited In Gulf War

The Pentagon imposes rules for media coverage of the war in the Persian Gulf, citing the possibility that some news – including information on downed aircrafts, specific troop numbers, and names of operations – may endanger lives or jeopardize U.S. military strategy. Nine news organizations file a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of limiting media access to the battleground. But a court rules the question moot when the war ends before the case is decided.

1991 Son Of Sam Law Is Struck Down

The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down New York’s Son of Sam law aimed at preventing convicted criminals or those accused of crimes from profiting from the sale of any work discussing their crimes. In Simon & Schuster Inc. v. New York State Crime Victims Board , the Court says the law violates the First Amendment because it singles out earnings from speech or writing.

1992 Court Strikes Down Hate Crime Law

In R.A.V. v. The City of St. Paul , the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the juvenile conviction of a 14-year-old white boy who burned a cross on the lawn of an African American family. The boy was prosecuted under a law prohibiting the placement of certain symbols that were “likely to arouse anger, alarm, or resentment on the basis of race, religion, or gender.” The Court finds that because the law punishes certain conduct only because of the ideas behind it – however offensive those ideas may be – it violates the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

1993 Justices Allow Tougher Hate Crime Penalties

In Wisconsin v. Mitchell , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Wisconsin law that increases the penalty for assault if the offender purposely picks his victim “because of the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation or national origin or ancestry of that person.” The Court rules that the increased penalty does not violate the offender’s free speech rights because the Wisconsin law is aimed at the offender’s actions.

1994 Justices Uphold Buffer Zones At Abortion Clinics

In Madsen v. Women’s Health Center , the U.S. Supreme Court affirms a Florida court’s ruling that abortion protesters could not demonstrate within 36 feet of an abortion clinic, make loud noises within earshot of the clinic, or make loud noises within 300 feet of a clinic employee’s home. (These distance requirements are known as buffer zones.) Although the Court acknowledges that the ruling restricts the protesters’ speech, it finds the restrictions “necessary to serve a significant government interest” of providing needed health care.

1995 Communications Decency Act Passed

As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress enacts the Communications Decency Act. The law is intended primarily to protect minors using the internet by criminalizing the placement of “obscene” and “patently offensive” material on the Web. The Communications Decency Act is almost immediately challenged by a diverse coalition of health-care providers, sex educators and pornographers on the grounds that the law violates the right to free speech.

1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act Passed

The Child Pornography Prevention Act expands the definition of child pornography – which, unlike most pornography involving adult subjects, does not enjoy First Amendment protection and can be criminalized – to include computer-generated depictions of children engaging in sexual activity. The act is challenged on First Amendment grounds by a variety of civil liberties and artistic groups.

1997 ‘Floating’ Buffer Zones At Clinics Struck Down

In Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a 15-foot buffer zone around an abortion clinic’s entrances and driveways, but strikes down a “floating” buffer zone that requires protesters to stay 15 feet away from all cars and patients as they enter and exit the clinic. The Court finds that, in contrast to the “fixed” buffer zone around the clinic, the “floating” zone risks silencing protesters: “Leafletting and commenting on matters of public concern are classic forms of speech that lie at the heart of the First Amendment, and speech in public areas is at its most protected on public sidewalks, a prototypical example of a traditional public forum.”

1997 Equal Access For Military Recruiters Is Upheld

The Solomon Amendment requires institutions of higher education to provide military recruiters with the same access to students as other potential employers. If the school does not, it loses certain federal funds. Members of an association of law schools and law faculties wanted to restrict military recruiting because they objected to the military’s policy on LGBT+ recruits. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously says that the Solomon Amendment does not place an unconstitutional condition on the receipt of federal funds. The Court says the First Amendment does not prevent Congress from directly imposing the equal access requirement because the Solomon Amendment limits conduct, not speech.

1997 Court Ruling Backs Free Speech On Internet

In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union , the U.S. Supreme Court gives broad support to free speech on the Internet. The justices rule that the Communications Decency Act violates the First Amendment by criminalizing many kinds of material on the internet that are not obscene or offensive, such as medical information or artistic depictions of the human body.

1998 Court: Public TV Can Exclude Candidates

The U.S. Supreme Court decides that public television stations can exclude minor-party candidates from their debates as long as the decision is not based on the candidates’ views and the debates are not designed as public forums. The decision, in Arkansas Educational Television Commission v. Forbes , strikes down an appeals court ruling that a state-owned TV network is obliged under the First Amendment to allow any candidate who has qualified for the ballot access to a debate.

1998 Decency Test On Arts Grants Is Upheld

In National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the NEA, the government’s art-funding agency, can include “decency” standards among its criteria for awarding government grants for artists’ work without violating the First Amendment.

1999 Giuliani Targets Publicly Funded Art

Infuriated by a planned exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that features an image of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatens to cut all city funding to the museum, evict the museum from its building, and remove the Board of Directors. A subsequent First Amendment lawsuit between the museum and the city will be settled the following year, with the city agreeing to pay an additional $5.8 million in repairs to the museum over the next two years.

2000 Boy Scouts Can Bar LGBT+ Leaders

In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale , the U.S. Supreme Court says the Boy Scouts organization has the right to bar gay people from serving as troop leaders. Assistant scoutmaster James Dale contended that the Boy Scouts had violated a New Jersey statute banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in places of public accommodation. The justices said the law violated the Boy Scouts’ First Amendment right to expressive association.

2000 Court Revisits ‘Floating’ Buffer Zones At Clinics

In Hill v. Colorado , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Colorado law that prohibits abortion protesters from “knowingly approaching” within eight feet of a person entering or exiting an abortion clinic. The Court says that, unlike the “floating” 15-foot buffer zone that it struck down in Schenck , the buffer zone in the Colorado law is small, so protesters are still able to exercise their free speech right.

2000 Children’s Internet Protection Act Passed

Congress passes the Children’s Internet Protection Act. The law requires public libraries that receive certain federal funds to use a portion of those funds to buy internet programs for their computer terminals to filter out material that is “harmful to minors.” The American Library Association and the ACLU both bring lawsuits challenging the law on First Amendment grounds.

2002 Ban On ‘Virtual’ Child Porn Struck Down

In Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Child Pornography Prevention Act’s criminalization of computer-generated depictions of children engaging in sexual activity violates the First Amendment. The Court finds that the law goes further than existing child pornography laws (which ban material involving actual children) to potentially cover many kinds of images that are not pornographic.

2003 Law To Protect Children Passed

The Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today Act, or the PROTECT Act, includes numerous provisions intended to protect children from exploitation, kidnapping, and other crimes. It increases penalties for creating child pornography and strengthens penalties for “virtual” child pornography. Modern technology makes it easier for individuals to produce child pornography without involving “real” children. This law takes steps to prevent that practice. The law also encourages increased cooperation of internet service providers to report suspected child pornography.

2003 Court Rules On Cross-Burning Law

In Virginia v. Black , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a law prohibiting cross burning could, in theory, be allowed under the First Amendment if it targets only cross burnings that are specifically “intended to intimidate.” Nevertheless, the Court strikes down the Virginia law because it outlaws all cross burnings, including those intended to express a political view.

2003 Law On Library Internet Filters Upheld

In United States v. American Library Association , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000, requiring public libraries that receive certain federal funds to buy internet filters for their computers to weed out material that is “harmful to minors,” does not violate the First Amendment. The Court says that Congress has broad authority to attach restrictions to its funding, and that the CIPA restrictions are consistent with library rules that limit children’s access to only age-appropriate materials. The Court says that libraries are allowed to disable the “blocking” software for adults.

2003 Justices Uphold Campaign Finance Law

The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, known as the McCain-Feingold Bill, is an effort to change the way money is raised and spent by political campaigns. Key parts are a ban on unrestricted (“soft money”) donations to political parties (often by corporations and unions) and restrictions on TV ads sponsored by unions, corporations and nonprofit groups up to 60 days before elections. The plaintiffs, including unlikely allies such as the National Rifle Association and the ACLU, say these provisions violate their rights to free speech and association. The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the provisions, finding that they are justified by the government’s interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption that might result.

2004 Child Online Protection Act Struck Down

After the Child Online Protection Act became law, the ACLU sued to stop its enforcement, saying the law violated the right to free speech. The U.S. District Court and the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both agree with the ACLU. In 2002, however, the U.S. Supreme Court orders the Third Circuit to reevaluate the case, saying the decision was based on insufficient reasoning.

In 2003, the appeals court again finds the law unconstitutional, based on different grounds from the first ruling. The justices agree to rehear the case and, in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union , strike down the law. Justice Anthony Kennedy writes that children can be protected from inappropriate material by other, less restrictive ways and that the law could prevent adults from accessing information they have a right to view.

2004 Patriot Act Provision Ruled Unconstitutional

A federal judge for the Southern District of New York rules unconstitutional a Patriot Act provision that allows the FBI to demand information about internet users but does not hold the FBI subject to public review or judicial oversight for its actions. The provision also forbids internet service providers from revealing that such information has been requested. Judge Victor Marrero rules that this provision violates the free speech right by prohibiting internet service providers from ever speaking about such FBI requests.

2006 Court Rejects Vermont Campaign Finance Law

Vermont’s Act 64 stringently limits the amounts that candidates for state office may spend on their campaigns and the amounts that individuals, organizations, and political parties may contribute. In Randall v. Sorrell , the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirms its 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo that rejected limits on how much candidates could spend on their own campaigns. Regarding Vermont’s contribution limits, the Court says they are so low that they pose a constitutional risk to the electoral process. Challengers may be unable to mount an effective challenge to better-financed incumbents.

2007 Court Strikes Down Ad Limits In Campaign Law

The U.S. Supreme Court creates an exemption to advertisement restrictions set out in the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. In Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life , Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writes that only ads that make specific appeals to vote for or against a candidate can be prohibited in the period covered by the law – 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election. The Court says limits on TV ads sponsored by corporations or unions in that period amount to censorship of political speech, which is protected under the First Amendment.

2007 Justices Restrict Students’ Free Speech Right

In Morse v. Frederick , the U.S. Supreme Court affirms that free speech rights for public school students are not as extensive as those for adults. In this case, a student held up a banner with the message “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” a slang reference to marijuana use, at a school-supervised event across from the campus. The principal removed the banner and suspended the student for 10 days. The majority opinion says that although students have some right to political speech, it does not include pro-drug messages that may undermine the school’s mission to educate against illegal drug use.

2009 City’s Refusal Of Religious Monument Upheld

The U.S. Supreme Court decides unanimously in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum that a Utah city did not violate the Summum church’s free speech right by refusing a donation of a monument reflecting its beliefs. The church argued that the park, which had a Ten Commandments monument, was a public forum and that the city could not discriminate among speakers. The Court said permanent monuments were government speech and did not have the same free speech protection as speakers or leaflets in a public forum.

2010 Court Lifts Limits On Corporate Election Spending

In Citizens United v. FEC , the U.S. Supreme Court rules, 5-4, to remove limits on corporate spending on elections. Corporations and unions still cannot directly give money to federal candidates or national party committees. The majority opinion says the First Amendment right of free speech extended to corporations. The landmark decision overturns decades of rules that governed the campaign finance and sparked fears that a flood of money into politics would dramatically alter campaigns.

2010 Corporate Spending Limit Rejected

The U.S. Supreme Court decides, 5-4, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission , that the government cannot regulate political speech — political spending — by corporations in elections. “If the First Amendment has any force,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writes for the majority, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” The dissenters warn of the consequences if a flood of corporate money is unleashed in elections. Justice John Paul Stevens says corporate speech should not be treated the same as that of people. The ruling overturns two precedents about the free speech rights of corporations: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce , a 1990 ruling that upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates, and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission , a 2003 decision that upheld the part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions.

2011 First Amendment Protects Funeral Protests

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain.” Those are Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s words when the Supreme Court rules in Snyder v. Phelps that the First Amendment’s right to free speech protects hateful protests at military funerals. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church — which believes God is punishing the U.S. for its tolerance of homosexuality — had appeared at the funeral of a Marine who died in Iraq. Albert Snyder, the Marine’s father, sued the protesters for, among other things, intentional infliction of emotional distress. Roberts suggests that laws creating buffer zones around funerals would be a better response than punishing unpopular speech. He says that the nation’s commitment to free speech demands protection of “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

2012 Person’s Right To Lie Is Protected

The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Stolen Valor Act, a federal law that made it illegal for individuals to claim to have won or to wear military medals or ribbons that they didn’t earn. The Court, in a 6-3 ruling, says that the First Amendment protects the right to lie about medals and military service. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy says freedom of speech “protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace.” The government had argued that such lies “inhibit the government’s efforts to ensure that the armed services and the public perceive awards as going only to the most deserving few.”

2012 U.S. Can’t Require Graphic Warnings On Cigarette Packs

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rules that the federal Food and Drug Administration cannot require tobacco companies to place large graphic health warnings on cigarette packages to show the effects of smoking. The appeals court upholds a lower court’s decision that the requirement violates the First Amendment’s free speech right. Some of the largest tobacco companies sued the government, arguing that the warnings were not just factual information but advocated against smoking.

2015 States May Limit Judicial Candidates’ Fund-Raising Requests

The U.S. Supreme Court rules, 5-4, in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar , No. 13-1499 that states may ban judicial candidates from personally asking their supporters for money. Twenty-nine other states also prohibit personal solicitations, which they say threaten the integrity of the judicial branch and public confidence in the system.

2015 Intent Cited in Online Threats Case

In a social media case, Elonis v. United States , the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who had used violent language against his wife on Facebook. The majority opinion says prosecutors failed to prove the defendant’s intent when he published threatening lyrics about his wife on Facebook. The decision makes it harder to prosecute people for threats made on social media.

2015 Court Says Texas May Reject License Plate Design

The U.S. Supreme Court decides in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. , 5-4, that Texas may refuse to make a specialty license plate with the Confederate flag. The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the state when it refused to make such a plate. The group said its First Amendment right to free speech had been violated. The majority opinion says that because license plates “constitute government speech,” Texas could choose which designs to produce.

2015 Town Ordinance On Signs Struck Down

In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously strikes down a town law that treated a church’s signs differently from other signs, such as political ads. Unlike other signs, the church signs were limited in size and allowed to be in place for only a certain number of house. The majority opinion says that the town ordinance was based on the content of the sign’s message, which violates the First Amendment’s free speech right.

2019 Federal Ban on ‘Immoral,’ ‘Scandalous’ Trademarks Struck Down

The U.S. Supreme Court rules, 6-3, that the federal government’s ban on registering “immoral” and “scandalous” trademarks violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. The dissenters express concern that the majority opinion goes too far and that the trademark office would be forced to register trademarks containing “the most vulgar, profane, or obscene words and images imaginable.” In the case, Iancu v. Brunetti, a Los Angeles artist, Erik Brunetti, sued the government for refusing to register the trademark for his “subversive” clothing line.

2021 Court Backs Catholic Agency Over Refusal To Work With Same-Sex Couples

The U.S. Supreme Court sides with a Catholic foster care agency that was cut off by the City of Philadelphia from receiving foster care referrals because it refused to work with same-sex couples. The agency believes marriage is between a man and a woman. The Court unanimously rules in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia that the city was wrong to end its foster care contract with Catholic Social Services. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for six of the justices, said the city’s refusal to contract with the foster care agency unless it agreed to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violated the First Amendment.

2021 Court Sides With Cheerleader In Off-Campus Speech

The U.S. Supreme Court rules 8-1 in Mahony Area School District v. B.L. in favor of a Pennsylvania cheerleader who lost her place on the squad because of a profane off-campus rant posted on social media. Although the Court said the punishment violated her First Amendment right of free speech, it declined to say schools never have a role in disciplining students for off-campus speech.

2022 Censure of Politician Is Constitutional, High Court Says

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decides in House Community College System v. Wilson that elected bodies do not violate the First Amendment’s free speech clause when they censure a member. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote: “In this country, we expect elected representatives to shoulder a degree of criticism about their public service from their constituents and their peers — and to continue exercising their free speech rights when the criticism comes.”

2022 High Court Rules Against Boston On Christian Flag

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rules in Shurtleff v. City of Boston that the City of Boston violated the First Amendment when it refused to let a private group raise a Christian flag in front of its City Hall. One of three flagpoles is occasionally made available to groups seeking to celebrate their backgrounds or to promote causes like gay pride. In a 12-year period, the city approved 284 requests to raise flags and rejected only one, from Camp Constitution, which says it seeks “to enhance understanding of our Judeo-Christian moral heritage.” The city’s refusal to let the group fly its flag based on its religious viewpoint violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment, the majority opinion said.

Related Resources

  • Book: First Amendment (1791)
  • Handout: Freedom of Speech: Finding the Limits
  • Book: Chapter 6: The Right to Freedom of Speech
  • Video: A Conversation on the Constitution with Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor: Freedom of Speech
  • Book: Chapter 8: The Latitude and Limits of Free Speech
  • Book: Chapter 10: The Flag-Salute Cases
  • Book: Chapter 18: Freedom of Speech in Public Schools

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, 1 Footnote U.S. Const. amend. I . viewed broadly, protects religious liberty and rights related to freedom of speech. Specifically, the Religion Clauses prevent the government from adopting laws “respecting an establishment of religion” —the Establishment Clause—or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” —the Free Exercise Clause. The First Amendment also expressly protects the freedoms of speech, press, peaceable assembly, and petition to the Government.

The Constitution Annotated essays discussing the First Amendment begin with the Religion Clauses, reviewing the history of these Clauses before explaining, in turn, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. The Religion Clause section ends with an essay exploring the relationship between the Religion Clauses and the Free Speech Clause. The Constitution Annotated then turns to this latter Clause, discussing interpretations of the Free Speech Clause before describing Supreme Court cases recognizing constitutional protections for freedom of association. Next, the Constitution Annotated explains the Free Press Clause. The First Amendment essays end by discussing the Clauses protecting the freedoms of assembly and petition.


Research & Learn

Table of contents, first amendment overview essays.

Writing notebook

The essays included in this collection give overviews of some of the most important areas of First Amendment law and scholarship. FIRE hopes that these essays explain the basics of First Amendment case law and jargon in a succinct, yet informative manner. This collection will expand on a regular basis, so please check back for more content.

Chilling Effect

The "chilling effect" refers to a phenomenon where individuals or groups refrain from engaging in expression for fear of running afoul of a law or regulation. Chilling effects generally occur when a law is either too broad or too vague. Individuals steer far clear from the reaches of the law for fear of retaliation, prosecution, or punitive governmental action. Read more about the chilling effect .

COVID-19 Emergency Measures and the First Amendment

The pandemic caused by the pervasive spread of the virus known as COVID-19 has placed significant pressure on government officials to act quickly to try to save lives and slow the spread of the virus. Many officials have responded with significant restrictions in the form of emergency stay-at-home orders, executive orders closing all but “essential” businesses, and bans on public gatherings — often of groups of more than 10 people. . . No matter one’s political beliefs, this time has also placed significant strains on First Amendment freedoms. Read more about COVID-19 emergency measures and the First Amendment .

Defamation refers to false statements of fact that harm another’s reputation. It encompasses both libel and slander. Libel generally refers to written defamation, while slander refers to oral defamation. Read more about defamation .

Fighting Words

The First Amendment may protect profanity directed against another. Then again, such intemperate speech may fall into a narrow, traditionally unprotected category of expression known as “fighting words.” Read more about fighting words .

Freedom of the Press

Collectively, this bundle of rights, largely developed by U.S. Supreme Court decisions, defines the “freedom of the press” guaranteed by the First Amendment. What we mean by the freedom of the press is, in fact, an evolving concept. It is a concept that is informed by the perceptions of those who crafted the press clause in an era of pamphlets, political tracts and periodical newspapers, and by the views of Supreme Court justices who have interpreted that clause over the past two centuries in a world of daily newspapers, books, magazines, motion pictures, radio and television broadcasts, and internet content. Read more about freedom of the press .

K–12 Expression and the First Amendment

Public school students “do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). Such rights must, however, be considered in the context of “the special characteristics of the school environment.” This means that while public school students possess free speech rights at school , school officials can regulate speech more as educators than governments can as sovereign. Read more about K–12 expression and the First Amendment .

Nude Dancing

The First Amendment protects much more than the spoken or printed word. It also protects various forms of symbolic speech and expressive conduct. The Supreme Court has ruled that the display of a red flag, the wearing of a black armband, the burning of the American flag and yes, even nude performance dancing are forms of expression that when restricted, require First Amendment review. Read more about nude dancing and the First Amendment.


Overbreadth is a supremely important concept in First Amendment law and a key tool for constitutional litigators. A law is too broad—or overbroad—when it not only covers speech that ought to be proscribed but also penalizes speech that should be safeguarded. Read more about overbreadth . 

Secondary Effects Doctrine

The secondary effects doctrine allows government officials to treat patently content-based laws as content-neutral. The animating logic is that government officials are not suppressing speech because of its content but because of adverse side effects associated with the speech, such as increased crime or decreased property values. Read more about the secondary effects doctrine . 

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Essays on First Amendment

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech, religion, and the press, as well as the right to assemble and petition the government. As such, it is a crucial topic for discussion and exploration in essays. When choosing a topic for a First Amendment essay, it's important to consider the significance of the issue, the relevance to current events, and the potential for in-depth analysis.

The First Amendment is the cornerstone of American democracy, protecting the fundamental rights of individuals and the press. It has been a subject of debate and controversy throughout history, shaping laws, policies, and societal norms. Understanding the complexities of the First Amendment is essential for citizens, policymakers, and legal professionals.

When selecting a topic for a First Amendment essay, it's essential to consider both the wide-ranging impact of the Amendment and its specific applications in different contexts. It's also important to choose a topic that aligns with personal interests and expertise. Researching current events, legal cases, and scholarly articles can help identify compelling and relevant topics for exploration.

Recommended First Amendment Essay Topics

Below is a detailed list of recommended First Amendment essay topics, divided into categories for ease of reference:

Freedom of Speech

  • The impact of social media on freedom of speech
  • Hate speech and the limits of free expression
  • The role of free speech in academic settings
  • The First Amendment and government censorship
  • Artistic expression and freedom of speech

Freedom of Religion

  • Religious freedom and the workplace
  • The intersection of religious beliefs and public policy
  • Challenges to religious freedom in a diverse society
  • The use of religious symbols in public spaces
  • Religious exemptions and the First Amendment

Freedom of the Press

  • The role of the press in holding government accountable
  • Press freedom and national security concerns
  • The impact of digital media on press freedom
  • Media bias and the First Amendment
  • The future of journalism and First Amendment protections

>Right to Assemble and Petition

  • The history and impact of protest movements in the United States
  • The use of technology in organizing and participating in protests
  • The challenges of balancing public safety and the right to assemble
  • The role of petitioning in influencing government decision-making
  • The global implications of the right to assemble and petition

Choosing a topic for a First Amendment essay requires thoughtful consideration and research. By selecting a topic that aligns with personal interests and addresses current issues, writers can produce compelling and relevant essays that contribute to the ongoing conversation about the First Amendment and its impact on society.

The Overview of The First Amendment to The United States Constitution

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The Impact of the First Ten Amendments on American Society

This essay is about the First Ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. It highlights their role in safeguarding individual freedoms and limiting governmental power. The text discusses the significance of key amendments, such as the First Amendment’s protection of free expression, the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, and the Fourth and Eighth Amendments’ roles in privacy and humane justice. The essay underscores the enduring principles of liberty and fairness that these amendments represent in American democracy.

How it works

In the rich tapestry of American history, the First Ten Amendments to the United States Constitution, cherished as the Bill of Rights, unfold a narrative of fortitude, ambition, and timeless values. Forged in the crucible of revolution, these constitutional pillars stand unwavering, safeguarding the sanctity of individual freedoms while curbing the overreach of governmental authority.

At the forefront of this constitutional tableau stands the First Amendment, a radiant symbol of democratic vitality and unfettered expression. Within its revered confines lie the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, and petition—an intricate tapestry of liberties empowering citizens to challenge orthodoxy, champion dissent, and steer the nation’s trajectory.

From the podium to the public square, from traditional media to the ever-expanding digital landscape, the First Amendment resounds as a tribute to the unyielding spirit of a free society.

In tandem with the clarion call of free expression, the Second Amendment emerges as a bastion of individual autonomy and self-preservation. Enshrining the right to bear arms, it embodies the quintessence of American self-reliance and vigilance. Yet, amidst a landscape shadowed by the specter of gun violence, the Second Amendment stands as a contentious nexus, where lofty ideals clash with the harsh realities of public safety and communal well-being.

Beyond the realm of rights and arms, the Bill of Rights serves as a bulwark against the encroachments of tyranny and inequality. The Fourth Amendment, with its shield against unreasonable searches and seizures, serves as a cornerstone of privacy and procedural fairness. Its protections, enshrined in legal precedent, act as a barrier against the tide of government overreach and unwarranted surveillance.

Similarly, the Eighth Amendment, with its prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, embodies the moral imperatives of equity and human dignity. From the corridors of power to the confines of detention facilities, its tenets demand that the administration of justice be tempered with compassion and proportionality. Yet, in a nation grappling with the scourge of mass incarceration and systemic biases, the Eighth Amendment serves as a poignant reminder of the unfinished quest for equal justice under the law.

In the symphony of American democracy, the resonance of the First Ten Amendments reverberates as a clarion call for liberty and fairness for all. From the venerable chambers of the Supreme Court to the bustling thoroughfares of every community, their impact echoes in the daily lives of citizens and the mechanisms of governance. Yet, as the nation evolves and confronts new trials, the enduring principles enshrined within these venerable texts endure as a beacon of hope and resilience, inspiring successive generations to strive toward a more perfect union.


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Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Biden Administration’s Contacts With Social Media Companies

The case, one of several this term on how the First Amendment applies to technology platforms, was dismissed on the ground that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue.

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President Biden, wearing a blue suit, speaks at a lectern.

By Adam Liptak

Reporting from Washington

The Supreme Court handed the Biden administration a major practical victory on Wednesday, rejecting a Republican challenge that sought to prevent the government from contacting social media platforms to combat what it said was misinformation.

The court ruled that the states and users who had challenged those interactions had not suffered the sort of direct injury that gave them standing to sue.

The decision, by a 6-to-3 vote, left for another day fundamental questions about what limits the First Amendment imposes on the government’s power to influence the technology companies that are the main gatekeepers of information in the internet era.

The case arose from a barrage of communications from administration officials urging platforms to take down posts on topics like the coronavirus vaccine and claims of election fraud. The attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, both Republicans, sued, along with three doctors, the owner of a right-wing website that frequently traffics in conspiracy theories and an activist concerned that Facebook had suppressed her posts on the supposed side effects of the coronavirus vaccine.

“The plaintiffs, without any concrete link between their injuries and the defendants’ conduct, ask us to conduct a review of the yearslong communications between dozens of federal officials, across different agencies, with different social media platforms, about different topics,” Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for the majority. “This court’s standing doctrine prevents us from exercising such general legal oversight of the other branches of government.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch, dissented.

“For months,” Justice Alito wrote, “high-ranking government officials placed unrelenting pressure on Facebook to suppress Americans’ free speech. Because the court unjustifiably refuses to address this serious threat to the First Amendment, I respectfully dissent.”

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How Congress Could Protect Free Speech on Campus

Shielding students from discrimination matters. So does preserving academic freedom.

A gavel hitting a graduation cap

Last year at Harvard, three Israeli Jews took a course at the Kennedy School of Government. They say that because of their ethnicity, ancestry, and national origin, their professor subjected them to unequal treatment, trying to suppress their speech in class and allowing teaching assistants and classmates to create a hostile climate for Jews.

Afterward, they filed a complaint with Harvard alleging a violation of their civil rights. In May, their allegations appeared in a federal civil-rights lawsuit. It cites their claims as evidence that Harvard “ignores and tolerates” anti-Semitism. Their professor, who is also Jewish, rejects that narrative and maintains that he taught the class appropriately.

What do colleges owe their Jewish students? Administrators, faculty, and members of Congress have debated that polarizing question in recent months. Soon, judges and juries may impose some answers. At least 19 lawsuits pending against institutions of higher education allege anti-Semitism that violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which mandates that no person shall, on grounds of race or national origin, “be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under” a program that receives federal funds.

Dara Horn: Why the most educated people in America fall for anti-Semitic lies

If you had to choose just one of these cases to illustrate their fraught implications, you couldn’t do better than the dispute at Harvard. The students make a strong case that they were subject to discrimination, strong enough that an outside attorney hired by Harvard to investigate agreed. At a minimum, I think they were treated unfairly.

Yet validating their claims would also mean rejecting their professor’s plausible defense of his pedagogical judgments, despite his indisputable expertise, undermining academic freedom.

More worryingly, Title VI doesn’t just guarantee equal treatment. It has been interpreted to mandate that colleges stop and remedy harassing behavior and prevent a persistently hostile climate. The lawsuit defines those concepts so expansively that, should all its arguments prevail, Title VI will conflict with free-speech protections more than it already does––and in doing so, the suit underscores the problem with Title VI, because its interpretation of the statute is plausibly consistent with the law’s vague and malleable text.

The way forward is to reaffirm equal treatment for Jewish students without undermining free speech or academic freedom. But we cannot rely on the justice system to achieve that balance. Congress should intervene, amending Title VI to add robust free-speech protections for all.

The course the lawsuit focuses on, “Organizing: People, Power, Change,” teaches graduate students how to be community organizers. Students form small groups and are asked to decide “Who are my people, what is our challenge, and how can we turn resources we have into the power we need to meet that challenge?” Then each group conceives an organizing campaign and shares it with classmates.

In the spring of 2023, the Israeli students, all mid-career professionals, teamed up in the 116-person class and proposed this plan: “Organizing a growing majority of Israelis, that act in harmony, building on a shared ethos of Israel as a liberal-Jewish-democracy, based on our mixed heritage and identities, being a cultural, economical, and security lighthouse.”

That idea drew complaints from Muslim and Arab students, according to Professor Marshall Ganz, who ordered it altered. Many “find the term ‘Jewish democracy’ deeply offensive because it limits membership in a political community to those who share a specific ethno-religious identity,” Ganz emailed one student, “whereas democracy is based on the equal worth of each person, regardless of race, ethnicity, and religion.”

The three countered that the idea of Jewish democracy is “woven within our identities as Israelis and as Jews.” In a class on learning how to mobilize others around ideas, they argued, “academic freedom is not served by silencing ideas” or “people from unpopular countries.” They refused to alter their campaign.

Later, two teaching assistants did a role-playing presentation for the class to illustrate how to recruit for a cause. They used “Palestinian solidarity” as their example––a choice the Israeli students felt was aimed at them––and, according to the lawsuit, the presentation included “a litany of aggressively anti-Israeli diatribes,” prompting other anti-Israel remarks from one student.

The Israeli students asked to respond with a different perspective. But Ganz rejected the request, the lawsuit states, saying they had “caused enough problems already.” Then the teaching assistants “organized a class photo wherein students posed wearing keffiyehs to demonstrate Palestinian solidarity.” This made the students feel “that they were not welcome” in the photo, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit also alleges that the Israelis received lower grades than their classmates as punishment––grade inflation is so comically extreme in the Ivy League that they are pressing that claim even after receiving grades of a B+, a B+, and an A-. Ganz has contested the Israeli students’ narrative in an outside investigation, a Nation essay, and an interview with me.

By biography, Ganz, 81, seems an unlikely target of an anti-Semitism lawsuit. His father was a conservative rabbi. His grandparents fled pogroms. His great-uncle was murdered at Auschwitz. He dropped out of Harvard to volunteer with the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project, then became an organizer for United Farm Workers, helping Cesar Chavez unionize farm labor. At 49, he returned to Harvard, finished his degree, then completed a master of public affairs and a Ph.D. in sociology, and became a professor. “My life has been deeply rooted in Jewish values and traditions,” he wrote in his February essay for The Nation , which cast Exodus as the inspiration for his life’s work. “Each generation had to decide: Who are you with?” he wrote. “Pharaoh’s warriors trying to return the people to slavery? Or people trying to break free?”

Ganz was surprised, then angry, when a Title VI complaint, a precursor to the lawsuit, was filed with Harvard. “In my organizing years in the 1960s and ’70s in Mississippi and rural California, I was routinely called out as a Jew Communist outside agitator ,” he wrote in The Nation . “But now, I was being investigated at the Kennedy School? As an antisemite?!” He believes that he taught not just lawfully, but with sound pedagogy informed by decades of experience as an organizer and a teacher.

The outside investigator Harvard hired, an attorney named Allyson Kurker, reached a different conclusion. Her June 2023 report sided with the students in significant respects, finding that their free speech was stymied and that they faced a hostile learning environment based on their Jewish ethnicity. When Ganz rejected their campaign, he was motivated by “real concern” for “students and teaching fellows he viewed as members of a group oppressed by Israel,” she wrote, but the Kennedy School’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities emphasizes that the school should expose students to “even unpopular and controversial” ideas and encourage them to “talk openly” about “highly charged issues.”

Her report acknowledged that the First Amendment, a lodestar for Harvard free-speech policies, does give professors latitude to restrict speech to avoid controversy, if the restriction is limited to “legitimate pedagogical concerns.” So Ganz “could, perhaps, limit students from making hateful or inflammatory statements about Israel or Palestine that are unsupported by authoritative sources,” Kurker wrote. Still, she found “no pedagogical support” for forbidding the trio from calling Israel “a Jewish democracy,” because that is not a merely provocative, unsupportable view––it is a common, if contested, view held by some experts.

The investigation validated Ganz’s decision to allow Palestine-aligned students to express their views. Only the fact that Ganz passively permitted the exercise about Palestinian solidarity to go forward after “seeking to silence the voices of the Students who sought to organize ways to improve Israel as a liberal Jewish democracy” was deemed discriminatory.

In this telling, Ganz could have avoided trouble by letting everyone air their views, even when controversial, rather than hold students to different standards.

Overall, the investigation found that “Ganz treated the Students differently on the basis of their Israeli national origin and Jewish ethnicity,” limiting their ability to participate in the class. But Ganz called the investigation a “kangaroo court.” He told me that neither the investigator nor the lawsuit understands his class and its purpose. “The point of this assignment was for students to learn how to create an organizing space that welcomed others in to build social movements,” he said. “Using contested and inflammatory language conflicted with the purpose of the assignment.”

I asked if he would have objected to an organizing campaign on “Palestinian solidarity.” He answered no, because “creating solidarity as a goal is consistent with the goals of our course.” He added that “a project on advancing a certain state as a ‘Muslim democracy’ (or ‘Christian democracy’)” would have had the same issues as the Israeli students’ project.

Although I don’t think Ganz’s behavior was motivated by anti-Semitism, I do think everyone in the class would’ve been better served by airing and discussing controversial campaign ideas. The attempt to suppress controversial ideas to avoid distraction clearly failed. And if the Israeli students’ framing hurt their ability to organize, surely that taught them something.

That doesn’t mean that whatever ideas a student brings to a class must go unchallenged. I’d defend Ganz had he told the Israeli students, “The phrase ‘Jewish democracy’ will alienate some of your classmates. I need you to understand why, and then to consider: Are you needlessly alienating people? Or is this framing so intrinsic to your cause that you can’t alter it, because to do so would alter the core of your campaign?” But ordering them to change their campaign, having allowed other students to proceed with controversial subjects, makes me suspect that ideological bias distorts Ganz’s sense of what is framing versus substance, what constitutes an unacceptable distraction, and when it is necessary to tell offended students that they will face consequences if they derail a class, rather than preempting ideas.

Of course, that’s just my opinion. Ganz himself raised the important question of who decides when I asked him about the finding that he tried to suppress a contested idea rather than an unsupportable provocation.

“As a scholar in this field,” he wrote, “I have significantly more background and expertise on this matter than a lawyer,” and because the class taught how to organize by way of actually organizing other Harvard students, he reasoned that the three students’ framing “would not only be divisive, but isolate themselves from engagement with others, making it far harder for them to realize the learning the class had to offer.”

Though I question his approach, I am hesitant to advocate for federal courts or bureaucrats to second-guess the judgments of a longtime professor who has expertise in the field in a dispute where the ostensibly wronged students got good grades and course credit.

Title VI allows students who feel they’ve experienced unequal treatment to appeal to civil-rights bureaucrats and the courts for a remedy. Yet the mere possibility of Title VI complaints creates an incentive for colleges to maintain costly, invariably biased speech-policing bureaucracies. Most monitor and micromanage interactions among faculty, teaching assistants, and students, chilling pedagogy and speech that should be protected.

This particular lawsuit is a major clash that highlights and could exacerbate this broken approach. Harvard has more resources than any other university to defend itself, if it decides that publicly litigating the case is preferable to settling it. The nonprofit that filed the lawsuit, the Brandeis Center , is formidable too: It was founded and is led by Kenneth Marcus , a former Department of Education official who helped ensure that Jews were considered a protected class under Title VI. The lawsuit is likely to benefit from his expertise at spotting fact patterns that help expand protections of Jews.

Conor Friedersdorf: The wrong way to fight anti-Semitism on campus

The Brandeis Center does important work to challenge discriminatory double standards that disadvantage Jewish and Israeli students. “Harvard’s permissive posture towards antisemitism is the opposite of its aggressive enforcement of the same anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies to protect other minorities,” its lawsuit persuasively argues. If the courts follow the lead of Kurker’s report and resolve double standards by protecting everyone’s expressive rights, the precedent could help protect Jews from discrimination without restricting anyone’s speech.

But its lawsuit doesn’t merely argue for resolving double standards, like the one the students allegedly faced, by emphasizing everyone’s free-speech rights. It argues that some of the protected speech of their professor and of their Palestine-aligned classmates was unlawfully harassing.

And policing more speech on behalf of any group sets a community standard on campus. Colleges must then regulate all speech just as vigorously, or else deploy a double standard that invites lawsuits from members of groups who correctly see that they are treated unequally. Harvard’s past policing of microaggressions informs today’s anti-Semitism complaints. What will Palestinian students be owed in the future?

Rather than risk policing everyone’s speech more intensely, Americans should demand a reaffirmation of that most foundational civil right: the ability of everyone to speak freely. Safeguarding this right requires Congress to act. It should not repeal Title VI—the prohibition on discriminatory double standards should stand. Instead it should amend the statute to clarify that nothing in the law requires policing speech protected by academic freedom or the First Amendment.

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Racial justice, free speech groups join fight against potential TikTok ban


FILE - The icon for the video sharing TikTok app is seen on a smartphone, Feb. 28, 2023, in Marple Township, Pa. The Federal Trade Commission has referred a complaint against TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, to the Department of Justice. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

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A dozen social and racial justice groups said Thursday that the federal effort to require a sale or ban of TikTok would suppress speech from minority communities by disrupting a critical tool many use to establish connections online and advocate for causes.

The legal brief, submitted to a federal court in Washington, comes as TikTok and its Beijing-based parent, ByteDance, are waging a consequential legal battle against the law, which would disrupt the platform’s U.S. operation to address bipartisan concerns about the popular app .

Thursday is the deadline for third-party groups to file documents supporting the social video platform and eight TikTok creators who sued the U.S. government last month. The two cases have since been consolidated.

The legal filing submitted Thursday came from a diverse set of organizations, including the New York-based Asian American Federation, a Washington-based nonprofit called the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, a Virginia-based transgender advocacy organization named the Calos Coalition and the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

In the brief, the groups wrote that TikTok has been instrumental to advocacy around various issues, such as reproductive rights and opposition to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the country.


They say the platform has empowered diverse communities in online conversations and placed “marginalized views squarely before new audiences,” enabling them “to break down stereotypes that persist in America and globally.” The brief claims this happens because the platform gives communities increased reach and the ability to bypass “entrenched hierarchies” found on other social media platforms.

TikTok has also received support from other organizations, which have echoed arguments the company has made in its lawsuit against the government.

On Wednesday evening, seven other free speech-oriented advocacy groups submitted a brief to the court, arguing the law would infringe on the First Amendment and make it impossible for users to associate on the app. Some digital rights groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have previously expressed support for the company or sided with it in a similar lawsuit against Montana last year.

The libertarian public interest firm Institute For Justice and Reason Foundation also filed a brief Thursday supporting TikTok’s free speech claims. Both groups have received donations from the Susquehanna Foundation, a sister organization to the trading firm co-founded by prominent ByteDance investor and Republican megadonor Jeff Yass.

The federal law, which President Joe Biden signed as part of a larger foreign aid package in April, is the U.S. government’s attempt to deal with long-running national security concerns about TikTok’s presence and reach in the U.S.

Lawmakers from both parties and some administration officials have said TikTok’s current ownership structure poses a threat since ByteDance operates under the laws of the Chinese government. They say Chinese authorities could force ByteDance to hand over U.S. user data or sway public opinion towards Beijing’s interests by tinkering with the algorithm that populates users’ feeds. However, the government hasn’t provided public evidence to support either claim.

The racial and social justice groups argue in their filing that anti-Asian sentiments clouded discussions around the law. Many TikTok creators have also opposed the measure, which marks the first time the U.S. has singled out a social media company for a potential ban. It gives ByteDance nine months to sell TikTok, and a possible three-month extension if a sale is in progress.

However, both companies have argued they would have to shut down TikTok’s U.S. operation by Jan. 19 because continuing to operate in the U.S. wouldn’t be commercially, technologically or legally possible if forced to divest.

Last week, TikTok filed another legal brief giving its account of negotiations it held with the Biden administration since 2021. The company said it presented a draft agreement in August 2022 but claimed the administration “ceased any substantive negotiations” with its attorneys after that.

The Justice Department said in a statement last week that it’s looking forward to defending the recently enacted legislation, which addresses “critical national security concerns in a manner that is consistent with the First Amendment and other constitutional limitations.”

The Cato Institute, a Washington-based libertarian think tank, is also expected to file a legal brief supporting TikTok. Yass currently serves as Cato’s vice chair.

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Supreme Court says Biden admin can combat social media misinformation in free speech case

The case turned on whether the biden administration had been using the bully pulpit or was actually bullying when officials urged removal of controversial posts on covid vaccines and other issues..

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WASHINGTON −The Supreme Court on Wednesday handed the Biden administration an election-year victory, throwing out a conservative challenge to government efforts to have social media companies remove posts it considered misinformation.

The 6-3 decision, led by Justice Amy Coney Barrett , was a response to a suit that came during a hot-button period when social media was thick with contentious posts over COVID-19, vaccines, top government scientist Anthony Fauci , and other emotional topics. Justices Samuel Alito , Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas dissented.

Barrett, writing for the majority, said the challengers argued that unfettered speech on social media is critical to their work as scientists, pundits and activists.

“But they do not point to any specific instance of content moderation that caused them identifiable harm,” Barrett wrote . “They have therefore failed to establish an injury that is sufficiently ‘concrete and particularized.’”

More: Supreme Court strikes down Trump-era ban on bump stocks for guns

In the dissent, Alito complained that the majority "unjustifiably refuses to address this serious threat to the First Amendment."

"For months, high-ranking Government officials placed unrelenting pressure on Facebook to suppress Americans’ free speech," Alito wrote.

Alito highlighted as problematic an email sent from a Biden COVID adviser to a Facebook official in March of 2021 complaining that the platform was not being responsive to the administration’s concerns and “we have been considering our options on what to do about it.”

By dismissing the case without deciding the underlying First Amendment issue, the justices avoided saying when governments go too far in interacting with media platforms about their content.

The Republican-led states of Missouri and Louisiana and five individual users of social media had charged the White House, the surgeon general and others with violating their free speech rights by coercing Facebook, YouTube and X (formerly Twitter) to remove or downgrade posts.

The Department of Justice said government agencies weren’t improperly threatening social media companies , but instead, were encouraging them to remove harmful or false information, including about vaccines. There was no retaliation when the platforms did not comply, the DOJ said.

In July 2023, a district court in Louisiana sided against the administration, imposing sweeping restrictions on the government’s interaction with social media platforms.

The New Orleans-based 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals narrowed the restraints . But the DOJ said that would still place unprecedented limits on how government officials can speak about matters of public concern, address national security threats, or relay public health information.

The restrictions were on hold while the Supreme Court reviewed the case.

Related Supreme Court defines when public officials may block critics on personal social media accounts

Experts had called the case , Murthy v. Missouri, a unique chance for the court to define how far governments may go to protect against online distribution of harmful content.

Alex Abdo, litigation director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said it was disappointing the high court didn't provide more guidance on the limits the First Amendment places on the government’s pressure campaigns.

“This guidance would have been especially valuable in the months leading up to the election,” he told USA TODAY.

But the Supreme Court said the challengers failed to show enough of a connection between the Biden administration’s communications with social media companies and restrictions on their postings.

"To be sure, the record reflects that the Government defendants played a role in at least some of the platforms’ moderation choices," Barrett wrote. "But the Fifth Circuit, by attributing every platform decision at least in part to the defendants, glossed over complexities in the evidence."

Even if there was a link, Barrett wrote, the challengers didn’t show enough likelihood that they would be harmed in the future.

Platforms have continued to enforce their own policies against COVID-19 misinformation, so blocking the government from communicating with the companies is unlikely to make a difference, the majority said.

“In my opinion, the plaintiffs were right on one issue – the potential for government pressure to implicate First Amendment rights warrants careful consideration from the courts,” said Gautman Hans, who helps lead the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic. "But this case was obviously the wrong one for the Court to assess those free speech questions."

The high court also heard another case this year about content moderation, examining the constitutionality of laws passed by Florida and Texas to limit the ability of social media giants to regulate user content.

Both cases grew out of concern from conservatives that their views were being suppressed, including claims of 2020 election fraud, the origin of and treatments for COVID-19.

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jim Jordan, who has argued the Biden administration pressured social media companies to censor posts about Hunter Biden’s laptop and COVID-19 vaccines, said Wednesday the high court’s decision demonstrated the need for legislation to protect the freedom of expression.

“Our country benefits when ideas can be tested and debated fairly on their merits, whether online or in the halls of Congress,” said Jordan, R-Ohio.

“While we respectfully disagree with the Court's decision, our investigation has shown the need for legislative reforms, such as the Censorship Accountability Act, to better protect Americans harmed by the unconstitutional censorship-industrial complex. Our important work will continue."


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