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.”

Main Points

  • The First Amendment only prohibits the GOVERNMENT from interfering with these freedoms, not private individuals or organizations.
  • The First Amendment freedoms have rules and exceptions. The Supreme Court interprets the laws while also considering how they relate to society’s progress.


What do the freedoms really mean?

Freedom of Religion:

  • The government cannot create a national religion. 
  • The government cannot prevent citizens from practicing any religion.

 Freedom of Speech:

  • The government cannot create laws to stop citizens from expressing or sharing their opinions and ideas verbally, in writing, or symbolically.

Freedom of the Press:

  • The government cannot prevent information on-line or in-print from being published, broadcasted, or shared.

Freedom of Assembly:

  •  The government cannot stop citizens from gathering peacefully, either in public or private.
  •  The government cannot stop anyone from joining groups and organizations in an attempt to spread their ideas and opinions.

Freedom of Petition:

  • Citizens can write to, collect signatures, call, or support lobbying groups to influence their local, state, or federal government.

 Remember: These freedoms protect us from government action only. 

 What about the Exceptions?

These five freedoms do not equate to freedom from consequences. Because the first amendment is a living document based on the interpretation of the supreme court, the time, place, and context related to each freedom have an impact on the protections. 

Exceptions to the Freedom of Speech:

  • Speech that is considered threatening, provokes and incites violence, or undermines the intent of the law is not protected (thus, punishable by law).
  • Similarly, speech that is seditious, libelous, slanderous, or defames another is not protected (punishable by law).
  • However, the speech of employees at a private company is not protected from consequences such as losing their jobs due to the written, spoken, or symbolic speech they share publicly (private sector consequences).

 Exceptions to Freedom of the Press: 

  • Private organizations are within their rights to censor or delete content published or shared (private sector consequences). 

(This is why social media platforms can delete content if they deem it problematic. It is not a violation of your First Amendment rights).

  • Student press in public schools can be censored (School-sponsored Speech).
  • Citizens publishing of libel is not protected (defamation).

Exceptions to the Freedom of Religion:

  • You can practice your religion as long as the course of action dictated by your religion is legal. If a religion required you to murder, your practicing of that religious act would not be protected (incitement to crime). 
  • Citizens also cannot avoid their taxes based on their religious beliefs (tax evasion). 

 Exceptions to the Freedom of Assembly:

  •  A gathering with violence, the threat of violence, or one that poses other immediate threats to public safety is not protected (incitement to crime). 
  • Citizens gathering on private property is also not protected (trespassing).

Exceptions to the Freedom of Petition:

  • There are limited cases shaping major exceptions in this area. 
  • Citizens need to remember that it only requires the government to receive complaints and grievances. The government is not required to respond to them or follow them.

For more on the First Amendment and how it relates to our current information landscape, check out this article by Daniela C. Manzi, of Fordham University School of Law, called, Managing the Misinformation Marketplace: The First Amendment and the Fight Against Fake News

If you would like to learn more about the First Amendment, check out some of these great organizations:

The Freedom Forum is dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people. It is a nonpartisan foundation that champions the five freedoms of the First Amendment.

FAC is an award-winning nonprofit dedicated to advancing free speech, open government and public participation in civic affairs.

The Knight First Amendment Institute defends the freedoms of speech and the press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education.

The Tully Center for Free Speech promotes and supports free speech through research, education and a series of events, including the annual Tully Award for Free Speech.

The First Amendment in our Everyday Lives…

Share your story and let us know what the First Amendment means to you! The First Amendment is complex and is thought about differently by many people. We look forward to reading about your experiences and feelings about the First Amendment and will be picking our favorites to feature here! 

Tell us your story!

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