In 1791, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution -- known as the Bill of Rights -- went into effect. Their purpose was to protect the rights of American citizens and prevent the federal government from abusing its powers. The First Amendment explicitly forbids Congress from passing laws abridging freedom of expression. The Supreme Court has interpreted this restriction as applying to all federal government acts and to state government acts as well.
Freedom of Speech
The First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech and press stands at the heart of freedom of expression protected by the Constitution. While freedom of speech protects many things people may view as offensive or controversial, it isn't absolute. In law suits where a law is challenged for violating the First Amendment, courts consider whether the law attempts to regulate the subject matter of speech. Laws that universally regulate the time, place or manner of speech in public places need only a rational basis. However, if the law discriminates based on the speech's content, the government must show a substantial justification for interfering with people's First Amendment rights.
Freedom of Assembly
Another clause of the First Amendment prohibits legislation that inhibits people's right to come together peacefully in groups, whether in public or private. Implied within this freedom is the freedom to associate with any group or organization, as long as that group doesn't conduct or advocate illegal activities. Some kinds of public group meetings or activities can be disruptive or threaten public safety. For this reason, the government can place restrictions on public events as long as the rules are the same for all groups regardless of their purpose. Likewise, requiring permits for parades or organized protests also does not violate the First Amendment.
Freedom of Belief
The First Amendment also prohibits the government from establishing a national church or religion, or passing laws that would inhibit the free exercise of religion. This right, acting hand in hand with freedom of assembly, ensures all Americans have the ability to believe what they want and worship as they choose without government interference. Some people take issue with the establishment clause, as when the courts interpret it as forbidding prayer in public schools. At the same time, the tolerance promoted by the free exercise clause may cause problems when activities of members of a minority sect violate a law that applies to everyone equally.
Right to Petition the Government
Not only do people have the right to gather together and discuss any issues they may have, but they also have the First Amendment right to petition the government seeking relief for those issues. Implied within this clause is the right to file a law suit in court, but people may also petition for other governmental action such as new legislation. Protesters petition the government in a public way, and the First Amendment ensures citizens can mobilize to effect changes in government and society. In a democracy, this right enables government representatives to be more responsive to the people, ensuring a more transparent government and stable society.
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