Skip to main content

First Amendment

First Amendment

When the U.S. Constitution was written in 1787, it contained few guarantees of individual freedom and liberty. Many members of the Federalist Party argued that such guarantees were unnecessary because the Constitution did not give the federal government power to violate individual freedoms. Many Anti-Federalists argued that without protecting individual freedom in the Constitution, the government would not be able to resist using its power in violation of such freedom. Federalists believed that in order to maintain a unified nation of states, it was necessary to have a federal government that was more powerful than the individual state governments. Anti-Federalists, on the other hand, believed that individual state governments should be more powerful than a federal government. To ensure that the Anti-Federalists would adopt the Constitution, the Federalists promised to adopt a Bill of Rights to protect individual freedoms from the government.

The Bill of Rights, which America adopted in 1791, contains ten amendments. The First Amendment sets out many of the most cherished freedoms in America, including the freedoms of religion, speech, and assembly.

The freedom of religion

The First Amendment contains two important clauses (distinct sections of a document) concerning religion. The first says that Congress may not make any laws respecting the establishment of religion. This clause is the source of the controversial doctrine of the separation of church and state. Some Americans think it means the government cannot be involved in religion at all. To others, the clause means the government cannot force people to follow a particular religion but that, in the course of conducting its business, the government can acknowledge God.

The second clause on religion says that Congress may not abridge the free exercise of religion. This means that Americans are free to practice whatever religion they want. There are limits, however, to this freedom. Federal courts have ruled that the freedom of religion does not allow people to disobey laws that prohibit the use of drugs, having more than one spouse, or sacrificing animals.

Freedom of speech

The First Amendment says Congress may not make laws that violate the freedom of speech or the press, meaning written, published speech. Many American revolutionaries believed that the freedom to criticize the government was essential to place limits on government power. The main reason for adopting the First Amendment was to prevent the federal government from controlling speech critical of it.

Although the free speech clause contains just a few simple words, federal courts apply it differently to different kinds of speech. The courts offer the most protection to political and religious speech. Political speech includes the donation of money to politicians and political parties, although some people believe such donations do not truly constitute speech.

Commercial speech and speech in public schools receive less protection than political and religious speech, but they are still part of free speech. Finally, there are certain kinds of speech that receive no protection. These include fighting words, libel, and obscenity. Despite the First Amendment, courts have ruled that Congress can ban such speech entirely.

The Text of the First Amendment

The First Amendment of the Constitution states:

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.

Freedom of assembly

The First Amendment says Congress may not make laws violating the right of the people to assemble and to petition the government. The freedom of assembly is sometimes called the freedom of association. It means people are free to form and gather peacefully in private groups. The freedom to petition the government includes the right to demonstrate on public property and to ask the government to make laws the people want or to strike unwanted laws.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"First Amendment." U*X*L Encyclopedia of U.S. History. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"First Amendment." U*X*L Encyclopedia of U.S. History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/first-amendment

"First Amendment." U*X*L Encyclopedia of U.S. History. . Retrieved August 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/first-amendment

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.