The First Amendment contains a bundle of unique yet closely related rights. Generally, these rights provide for the freedom of citizens’ to hold and express beliefs without interference or retaliation by the government. This includes the freedom to practice religion, the freedom of speech, and the freedom to associate with others. Although its wording specifically prohibits action taken by Congress, the various clauses of the First Amendment have been incorporated through the Due Process Clause of the 14th amendment to apply to the states.
The protections found within the First Amendment stemmed in part from the founding fathers’ reactions towards life under the British rule. In England, speech was tightly controlled – a license granted by the government was required to publish and “seditious libel” laws were used to punish anyone who spoke against the government. Libel law was used against colonists critical of British governance. Additionally, in contrast to the diverse groups that came to the colonies in order to practice religion freely, England had an organized church established by the government.The First Amendment begins with the Establishment Clause, which prevents the government from establishing a religion or favoring any particular faith. This is often referred to as the “separation of church and state”, based on the view advanced by Thomas Jefferson.
The following clause, the Free Exercise clause, forbids the government from interfering with or discriminating against citizens for their religious beliefs. This clause is closely linked to the Establishment Clause and the two often both come into play in cases involving religion, working either together or opposite of each other depending on the circumstances.
The third clause is the Free Speech clause. This prohibits the government from passing laws that restrict citizens expressing (or choosing not to express) protected speech. Speech can take on a huge variety of forms or be shared through different mediums, but it is essentially the sharing or expressing of an idea. Not all speech is equally protected – while some speech is fundamentally protected, significant exceptions have been carved out for certain speech that is given less protection or none at all.
Closely intertwined with the freedom of speech is the freedom of the press. The Free Press clause protects the right to publish and exchange ideas without interference from the government. Many of the rationales and issues involved in the freedom of speech overlap with the freedom of the press. Issues that affect publishing – such as licensing laws for broadcast, or prior restraints on what a newspaper can print, are of particular relevance to this clause. It should be noted however that despite its name, the freedom of the press applies to everyone rather than just professional news media.
The next section is known as the Assembly Clause. The Assembly Clause provides for the right of citizens to gather to express ideas and communicate. This clause also encompasses the freedom of association – a first amendment right of individuals to work and organize in groups to advance beliefs and ideas. This right is important because it acts as a means to accomplish the goals of the other First Amendment clauses by providing strength in numbers to ideas and messages.
The final section of the First Amendment is the Petition Clause. This clause provides for the right of citizens to contact the government with any complaints, demands, or grievances. Contact can include lobbying the lawmakers and leaders, as well as the ability to bring lawsuits in court.