The Significance of the First Amendment

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The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedoms of religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly.1 Most Americans agree that these freedoms are important, but every American should also consider why this amendment is important and whom this amendment protects. For instance, does freedom of religion protect individuals, religious groups, or non-religious people, and why is it important that people can freely worship? For that matter, does this part of the Constitution prohibit the government from ever interacting with religion? The freedoms of religion, press, assembly, petition, and speech established by the First Amendment protect different people, and although these freedoms are vital to the American law system, their extent has been debated and sometimes reinterpreted throughout the years. First, freedom of religion keeps the government from forcing beliefs on religious and secular groups alike, but the supposed “wall of separation between church and state” often associated with this freedom is much more complicated than many people think.2 The First Amendment states that the American government is not allowed to establish an official American church or keep people from following a certain religion. This protects religious groups from governmental oppression and allows people the choice not to associate with any religion. However, this part of the First Amendment is much less straightforward than it seems. In the 1962 Engle v. Vitale case, official school prayers were deemed unconstitutional, but in 1996, the Court ruled in favor of an after-school religious group that wanted to gather in a public school. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), Amish people were permitted to break state laws by skipping high school for religious reasons, but in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990), Native Americans were not permitted to break the law by using drugs in their ceremonies.3 With so many seeming contradictions in these cases, how are Americans to know which religious behaviors will be supported by the government and which will not? This question remains unanswered by the Supreme Court. Second, freedom of the press allows the media to publish works opposing injustice without fear of government punishment. Even when the Constitution was written, newspapers were an important source of information, and today, the media are more prevalent in American politics and culture than ever before. The First Amendment ensures that publishers, reporters, news sites, and other media sources cannot be punished for stances that oppose government actions and decisions. This allows news companies and other forms of media to freely inform the public, speaking out against any unconstitutional or wrong behavior. Again, though, this freedom is open to some interpretation. Media sources can be sued for harmful, false statements such as slander and libel. However, in the 1964 case New York Times Company v. Sullivan, the Court stated that when making statements about public figures and institutions, news sources can make false statements or conjectures if unaware of the statements’ falsity.4 This decision attempts to balance the freedom of the press with the rights of public figures and companies.

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