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The First Amendment Essay, Research Paper

No other democratic society in the world permits personal freedoms to

the degree of the United States of America. Within the last sixty years,

American courts, especially the Supreme Court, have developed a set of

legal doctrines that thoroughly protect all forms of the freedom of

expression. When it comes to evaluating the degree to which we take

advantage of the opportunity to express our opinions, some members of

society may be guilty of violating the bounds of the First Amendment by

publicly offending others through obscenity or racism. Americans have

developed a distinct disposition toward the freedom of expression

throughout history.

The First Amendment clearly voices a great American respect toward the

freedom of religion. It also prevents the government from “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.”

Since the early history of our country, the protection of basic freedoms

has been of the utmost importance to Americans.

In Langston Hughes’ poem, “Freedom,” he emphasizes the struggle to

enjoy the freedoms that he knows are rightfully his. He reflects the

American desire for freedom now when he says, “I do not need my freedom

when I’m dead. I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.” He recognizes the need

for freedom in its entirety without compromise or fear.

I think Langston Hughes captures the essence of the American

immigrants’ quest for freedom in his poem, “Freedom’s Plow.” He accurately

describes American’s as arriving with nothing but dreams and building

America with the hopes of finding greater freedom or freedom for the first

time. He depicts how people of all backgrounds worked together for one

cause: freedom.

I selected Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a fictitious example of

the evils of censorship in a world that is becoming illiterate. In this

book, the government convinces the public that book reading is evil because

it spreads harmful opinions and agitates people against the government.

The vast majority of people accept this censorship of expression without

question and are content to see and hear only the government’s propaganda.

I found this disturbing yet realistic. Bradbury’s hidden opposition to

this form of censorship was apparent throughout the book and finally

prevailed in the end when his main character rebelled against the practice

of burning books.

Among the many forms of protests are pickets, strikes, public speeches

and rallies. Recently in New Jersey, more than a thousand community

activists rallied to draft a “human” budget that puts the needs of the poor

and handicapped as a top priority. Rallies are an effective means for

people to use their freedoms effectively to bring about change from the


Freedom of speech is constantly being challenged as is evidenced in a

recent court case where a Gloucester County school district censored

reviews of two R-rated movies from a school newspaper. Superior Court

Judge, Robert E. Francis ruled that the student’s rights were violated

under the state Constitution. I feel this is a major break through for

students’ rights because it limits editorial control of school newspapers

by educators and allows students to print what they feel is important.

A newly proposed bill (A-557) would prevent school officials from

controlling the content of student publications. Critics of the bill feel

that “student journalists may be too young to understand the

responsibilities that come with free speech.” This is a valid point;

however, it would provide an excellent opportunity for them to learn about

their First Amendment rights that guarantees free speech and freedom of the


In his commencement address to Monmouth College graduates, Professor

Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School defended the broad right to free

speech. He stated, “My message to you graduates is to assert your rights,

to use them responsibly and boldly, to oppose racism, to oppose sexism, to

oppose homophobia and bigotry of all kinds and to do so within the spirit

of the First Amendment, not by creating an exception to it.” I agree that

one should feel free to speak openly as long as it does not directly or

indirectly lead to the harm of others.

One of the more controversial issues was the recent 2 Live Crew

incident involving obscenity in rap music. Their record, “As Nasty as They

Wanna Be,” was ruled obscene in federal court. They were acquitted of the

charges and quickly became a free speech martyr. Although many stores

pulled the album, over two million copies sold as a result of the incident.

I feel that in this case the principles of free speech have been abused

because young children can purchase and listen to this obscene music.

The American flag, symbol of our country’s history and patriotism, has

also become a topic of controversy. The controversy was over the right to

burn the flag without punishment. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan

offered the response that “if there is a bedrock principle underlying the

First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression

of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or

disagreeable.” Burning the flag is considered a form of symbolic speech

and therefore is protected under the First Amendment. As in the 2 Live

Crew case, I feel that we are protecting the wrong people in this case.

The minority is given precedence at the sacrifice of the majority.

The book, American Voices, is a collection of essays on the freedom of

speech and censorship. I chose to put this collection of essays into my

book because they represent the strong central theme of freedom of

expression as the cornerstone of American government, culture and life.

Each essay strongly defends a case for free commercial speech. Each was

generally in favor of fewer limitations on freedom of expression.

The American voice on freedom has been shaped throughout the course of

history by the initial democratic notions of the immigrants to the same

desire for greater freedom that we have today. The freedom of speech has

constantly been challenged and will continue to be challenged in the

future. It is important that we learn from the precedented cases of the

past of our constitutionally protected rights so that in the future

authority will not violate our freedoms or oppress our liberty.

Ever since colonial times, the protection of personal freedoms in the

United States has been significantly important. Even in the early stages

of American history there was an urge to put legally protected freedoms

into written government documents. The result was the drafting of the first

ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, by James Madison.

The applications of the personal freedoms described in the Bill of Rights,

particularly the freedom of speech, have been challenged repeatedly in

American courts of law and elsewhere. These incidents and challenges of

authority reflect the defensive American attitude toward the ever important

freedom of expression and the growing significance of personal rights

throughout American history.

In Colonial America, members of diverse nationalities had opposing

views on government, religion, and other subjects of interest. Serious

confrontations were prevented because of the vast lands that separated

groups of varying opinions. A person could easily settle in with other

like believers and be untouched by the prejudices and oppression of others.

For this reason, Unitarians avoided Anglican or Puritan communities.

Quakers and Anabaptists were confined to Pennsylvania and Rhode Island

while Catholics were mainly concentrated in Maryland. As the United States

grew larger and larger, these diverse groups were forced to live together.

This may have caused individual liberties to be violated because of the

distrust and hostile feelings between ethnic and religious groups.

Most of the initial assemblies among the colonies considered

themselves immune from criticism. They actually issued warrants of arrest,

interrogated, fined, and imprisoned anyone accused of libeling the assembly

as a whole or any of its members. Many people were tracked down for

writing or speaking works of offense.

The first assembly to meet in America, the Virginia House of

Burgesses, stripped Captain Henry Spellman of his rank when he was found

guilty of “treasonable words.” Even in the most tolerant colonies,

printing was strictly regulated. The press of William Bradford was seized

by the government when he printed up a copy of the colony’s charter. He

was charged with seditious libel and spent more than a year in prison.

A more famous incident was the trial of John Peter Zenger which

established the principle of a free press. In his newspaper he published

satirical ballads regarding William Cosby, the unpopular governor, and his

council. His media was described “as having in them many things tending to

raise seditions and tumults among the people of this province, and to fill

their minds with a contempt for his majesty’s government.” The grand jury

did not indict Zenger and the General Assembly refused to take action. The

defendant was acquitted on the basis that in cases of libel the jury should

judge both law and the facts.

James Alexander was the first colonial writer to develop a philosophy

on the freedom of speech. He founded the American Philosophical Society

and masterminded the Zenger defense. Alexander’s chief conviction was

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar in a free government: when this

support is taken away, the constitution is dissolved and tyranny is erected

on its ruins.”

The original Constitution did not contain a bill of rights because the

convention delegates felt that individual rights were in no danger and

would be protected by the states. However, the lack of a bill of rights

was the strongest objection to the ratification of the Constitution.

Less than a decade after the Bill of Rights had been adopted it met

its first serious challenge. In 1798, there was a threat of war with

France and thousands of French refugees were living in the United States.

Many radicals supported the French cause and were considered “incompatible

with social order.” This hysteria led Congress to enact several alien and

sedition laws. One law forbade the publication of false, scandalous or

malicious writing against the government, Congress or the President. The

penalty for this crime was a $2,000 fine and two years in prison.

The public was enraged at these laws. Thomas Jefferson and James

Madison pleaded for freedom of speech and the press. The alien and

sedition laws became a prime issue in the presidential election of 1800.

Soon after Jefferson was elected, the Sedition Act expired and those who

had been convicted under it were immediately pardoned.

The next attack on the First Amendment occurred in 1835. President

Andrew Jackson proposed a law that would prohibit the use of mail for

“incendiary publications intended to instigate the slaves to insurrection.”

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina led a special committee that opposed the

proposal on grounds that it conflicted with the First Amendment. The

proposal was defeated because it was a form of censorship.

The next violation of the principles contained in the First Amendment

came on January 2, 1920. Under the direction of A. Mitchell Palmer,

Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General, about 500 FBI agents and police raided

3,000 Russians and other European immigrants, looking for Communists to

deport. The victims were arrested without warrants, homes were ransacked,

personal property was seized, and they were hauled off to jail.

An even more vicious episode was known as “McCarthyism,” an incident

in the 1950’s when Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin proclaimed that

the federal government had been thoroughly infiltrated by Communist agents.

His attacks on United States information libraries abroad led to the

burning of some books accused of being Communist propaganda. Reduced

congressional support caused many librarians to resign and the closing of

libraries. On the morning of December 16, 1965, thirteen year old Mary Beth

Tinker went to school in Des Moines, Iowa. She and her fifteen year old

brother, John, had decided to wear black armbands as a protest to the

Vietnam War. In advance to their arrival, the principal had decided that

any student wearing an arm- band would be told to remove it, stating that,

“The schools are no place for demonstrations.” If the student refused, he

would be suspended until the armband was permanently removed. On December

16, the Tinkers refused to remove their armbands. They were suspended and

did not return to school until after January 1, when by a previous decision

the protest had ended.

The students brought suit in federal court to confirm their First

Amendment right to wear the black armbands. They lost in The Federal

District Court on grounds that this type of symbolic expression might

disturb school discipline. The United States Court of Appeals for the

Eighth Circuit was divided equally (4-4) so the decision remained


On February 24, 1969, the United States Supreme Court decided in the

students’ favor by a vote of 7 to 2. The Tinker v. Des Moines Independent

School District decision was a landmark case for students’ rights and

liberties. Speaking for the majority of the Court, Justice Abe Fortas

wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their

constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse


During the sixties and early seventies a new wave of court battles for

First Amendment freedoms emerged. The freedom of speech was recognized as a

vital element in a democratic society. Censorship and the infringement of

First Amendment rights, especially among students and their newspapers,

could not and would not be tolerated. American citizens took a firm stand

against the government and authority at important times when they could

have yielded to the oppressive violations of their rights.


“Amendments to the Constitution.” Collier’s Encyclopedia. 1965 ed.

American Voices. New York: Phillip Morris, 1987.

Bollinger, Lee. C. The Tolerant Society. New York: Oxford University

Press, 1986.

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973.

Bugman, Cathy. “Monmouth Grads Hear Top Lawyer Defend Broad Right to Free

Speech.” The Star Ledger, 27 May 1991: A-9.

First Freedom Today, The. Chicago: American Library Association, 1984.

Gates, David. “The Importance of Being Nasty.” Newsweek, 2 July 1990: 52.

Hentoff, Nat. The First Freedom. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1980.

Hughes, Langston. The Panther and the Lash. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,

Inc., 1967.

Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1981.

Isaacson, Walter. “O’er the Land of the Free.” Time, 3 July 1989: 14-15.

Kalven, Harry, Jr. A Worthy Tradition. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Leusner, Donna. “Social Services Advocates Rally for ‘Human’ Touch in

State Budget.” The Star Ledger, 9 April 1991: A-3.

McHugh, Bob. “‘Free Speech’ Moves for School Newspapers.” The Star

Ledger, 4 May 1991: A-3.

“Student Wins Freedom of Speech Case.” Daily Record, 24 April 1991: A-2.

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