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The Importance of the First Amendment

The First Amendment of the Constitution written during the summer of 1789 was the first added to The Bill of Rights. Although they were not a part of the original Constitution they came as the first addition. The Bill of Rights came about mainly as a result of Antifederalists who had criticized the Constitution for its lack of individual rights. When some states refused to approve the Constitution the Bill of Rights were adopted in order to ensure a number of personal freedoms to the people of the United States.

A congressional committee along with James Madison recorded and discussed the conditions that would become the Bill of Rights. By holding a convention of the States, an agreement of two-thirds of the states or two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress would be the only way amendments could be proposed. Realizing that this would be an insufficient if not impossible way to create the Bill of Rights, James Madison decided to draft the amendments himself by submitting them to Congress.

In 1791, the first ten amendments to the Constitution were accepted and called the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights generally states the rights of the people, of those the First Amendment is often considered the most important. The First Amendment states that

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This basically means that no government or private institution has the right to silence anyone, nor do they hold the right to suppress a person’s right to express themselves. This amendment is possibly the most important, by restraining the government from suppressing voices that they may not like the First Amendment helps to work for a fair and honest nation. Without the freedom of speech it is very possible that the government could quickly take over the nation, before the public even realizes what has happened. The evils that come as a result of a lack of free speech are clearly illustrated as national history is looked upon, and a number of cases have been brought to the Supreme Court in the name of free speech.

One of the first violations of free speech and quite possibly the most obscene display of governmental power (in the United States) of all time dates back to 1798 as the Federalists dominated the government by passing The Sedition Act of 1798. This act punished people with fines and imprisonment for those with intent to oppose any measure or measure of the government of the United States. Or counseling or advising such opposition, or writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous, or malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame or to bring them to either of them, into contempt or disrepute. Although the Republicans debated against the bill for over a month, the Federalist had numbers needed to win the vote.

The Sedition act was so blatantly oppressive it was described as the most repressive measure ever directed against political activity in the United States (Blum 169). As if the act itself were not bad enough the Federalists did not even make an effort to conceal their intentions as they set the date it for which it was to expire; March 3, 1801, when the next president would be inaugurated. By setting this date the act would last long enough to gag Republican criticism of the federalist administration, until it was far too late to have an influence. Plus it would expire soon enough to allow the Federalists to criticize the Republicans in case the election overturned the Federalist rule.

The first victim of the Sedition act was Matthew Lyon, a republican representative from Vermont. Prior to the Sedition act Lyon had built up an angry rivalry with Connecticut Federalist Roger Griswold. When Lyon was up for reelection in the fall following the Sedition act he blatantly directed his campaign against the Federalist Party and their outrageous conduct. Despite the fact that his arguments were met and countered almost word for word by the Federalists, Lyon was indicted, convicted, and sentenced (by a Federalist Judge) to four months in jail and a 1,000-dollar fine. Fortunately the people of Vermont were bright enough to recognize this outrage, and reelected him while serving his jail sentence.

Actions such as these caused great Republican alarm, and rightly so. The Federalists’ actions showed that they were ready to dismiss the principles of the Revolution, the Constitution, and the standards that the country was founded upon. The whole ordeal served as a dark harbinger of the politics in America’s future. This specific detriment came to an end however when the people elected Jefferson to be president, and he did not reinstate sedition acts when they ran out.

A background of fear helped keep the public silent and perhaps somewhat approving to the loss of some personal freedoms, as nobody wanted to be accused sedition. In May of 1778, President Adams declared a day of prayer and fasting. Many people thought that protestors were going to use that day to rise up in insurrection, while some even feared an attack on President Adams! Supportive citizens of Philadelphia came out by the hundreds to protect him Adams. Federalists saw this as a demonstration of support for the government, while those who spoke against the Federalists were accused of violating the Sedition act. Edward Livingston, in opposing the act said, “If we are ready to violate the Constitution, will the people submit to our unauthorized acts? Sir, they ought not to submit; they would deserve the chains that our measures are forging for them, if they did not resist.”

A second example of the dark consequences that may come as a result of the violation of the First Amendment is the Supreme Court case of Feiner vs. New York. The whole ordeal started in early 1949, Irving Feiner, a student at Syracuse University in New York, climbed atop a box at a busy street corner in Syracuse and began to speak words of revolution. His rants drew a crowd of about 75 people, and he urged them all to attend a meeting to be held that night by the Young Progressives of America.

The Young Progressives were a derivative of the leftist Progressive Party, which had separated from the Democrats during the 1948 presidential campaign. The Progressive s argued for such liberal moves as a repeal of the draft, and end to race-based discrimination. They also supported closer ties with the Soviet Union, and greater freedom of political action for the Communist party in the United State.

In the course of his speech, Feiner highly criticized the President Harry Truman, the mayor of Syracuse, and other local politicians. He also directed insults towards the American Legion. He also urged the African Americans in the crowd to fight for equal rights. According to court records, Feiner s speech stirred up a little excitement. The crowd became mildly psychical as pushing and shoving began; angry shouts of support also arose. After approximately 20 minutes, two police officers ask Feiner to stop speaking. He defied their requests, and shortly thereafter was arrested. Feiner was convicted of disorderly conduct, lost his appeals in the New York courts and took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The free speech clause of the first amendment was clearly written in order to protect the right of people to express their views in order to keep the government honest and fair. However this amendment does little good when it does not extend to the minority who do not support the current political doctrine. By the police stepping in to silence a citizen’s freedom of speech, especially when he is discussing the flaws of the government is a major blow against the first amendment. In order to keep government fair to all people instead of a single elite class freedom of speech must be fully supported.

A third, more up to date example of a controversy over the first amendment is the extent of free speech on the Internet. This example is currently still being shaped and drawn out as the Internet expands every day. The Internet offers a much greater potential for interactive communication between information senders and receivers than the four traditional methods of communication including newspaper, radio, magazines, and television.

On a wider spectrum it has been established that the freedom of speech assured by the constitution is not an absolute right. Depending on the medium through which information is delivered, various degrees of the freedom to express one’s self is protected. The newly developing Internet has not yet found its own nitch as it right now is blending in with several forms of communication.

When the first amendment became law the printed page was the most widely used non-verbal medium of speech. However “Speech”, as we understand it, involves more than verbal communication. Speech includes pictures, movies, radio, television and expressive conduct [Shelton v. Tucker, 364 US 479 (1960)]. As technology has advanced and additional communication mediums have developed, speech was given various levels of first amendment protection depending on the medium through which the information was delivered.

The Internet is a worldwide network of computer systems, which allows literally millions of people to communicate with one another on a minute by minute basis. A core values approach protects identical speech regardless of the medium in which it is delivered. So it is a foundation for the Internet and promotes development of new technology. That, “Congress shall make no law… or abridging the freedom of speech”, suggests an absolute right to speak. Justice Black dissenting in Konigsberg felt that freedom of speech was absolute [Konigsberg v. State Bar of California, 366 US 36 (1961)]. Justice Harlan writing for the majority rejected an absolute right, noting that protected freedom of speech was less than an unlimited license to talk. When examining a restriction on speech the court will look for a compelling government interest to warrant the restraint on speech. Also the court will look to determine if the regulation accomplishes the governmental objective in the least restrictive way. Others point out that Cyberspace is unlike other communication media and therefore should not be regulated at all or should have a different standard [Anne Wells Branscomb, “Anonymity, Autonomy, and Accountability: Challenges to First Amendment.

A recent case regarding this issue has taken place at a state level in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On Friday April 2nd 1999, The Justice Department appealed a judge’s ruling that prevented the enforcement of a federal law aimed at preventing minors from gaining access to Internet pornography.

The law, approved, and signed by President Clinton last year, would require Web sites to require a credit card number or an access code as proof of age before allowing Internet users to view online material deemed “harmful to minors.” U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed barred its enforcement Feb. 1st, 1999 after civil rights activists claimed it violates free speech as given in the First Amendment, and unfairly prosecutes gays, AIDS activists and others.

The Justice Department, which appealed to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, argued the law would act as a “brown paper wrapper” protecting children from pornographic Web sites. The Child Online Protection Act is the second major effort by Congress to protect children from Internet pornography after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which would have applied to both commercial and noncommercial Web sites.

The new law calls for maximum criminal penalties of six months in jail and $50,000 in fines, and additional fines for repeat violators. This case is still under hot debate as family values activists insist on protecting children from “harmful” material on the Internet, while First Amendment advocates are adamant over the fact that this freedom of expression may be barred.

The extreme importance of the First Amendment can be dated back as far as before the Bill of Rights was even written, in the records of debates against the ratification of the Constitution in the first place. As the anti-federalists stated,

” The first consideration that this review suggests is the omission of a BILL OF RIGHTS ascertaining and fundamentally establishing those unalienable and personal rights of men, without the full, free, and secure enjoyment of which there can be no liberty, and over which it is not necessary for a good government to have the control. The principal of which are the rights of conscience, personal liberty by the clear and unequivocal establishment of the writ of habeas corpus, jury trial in criminal and civil cases, by an impartial jury of the vicinage or county; with the common law proceedings, for the safety of the accused in criminal prosecutions; and the liberty of the press, that scourge of tyrants, and the grand bulwark of every other liberty and privilege; the stipulation heretofore made in favor of them in the state constitutions are entirely superseded by this constitution”

Freedom of speech (among other civil liberties) was just as much of an issue in the pre-constitutional era as they are today. It is essential that both citizens and government officials work to protect the First Amendment in order to keep the United States fair and equal.

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