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.This is the first article in a new series examining what we have come to know, love, respect, yet sometimes also abuse, pervert, and abhor as freedom of speech.
Origins Of Our Freedom Of Speech
Free speech is firmly rooted in the Constitution of the United States. Specifically, the First Amendment demands that Congress will not make any law that will infringe on the freedom of speech, as well as on the freedom of the press (whose stock in trade is speech), or the right to a peaceful meeting (at which speech could be the focal point).
Restrictions On Free Speech
Notwithstanding the foregoing, limitations to free speech have already been enacted. For example, Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962) held that school prayer was unconstitutional, since it violated the first amendment’s injunction against establishing a religion. The phrase at issue was:
Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.Other restrictions involved the restrictions of free speech of students (Bethel School District v. Fraser (1986), of obscene materials (Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15), as well as the institution of “free speech zones”, which geographically limit dissenting protesters’ access to the politician in their verbal crosshairs.
Scope Of Free Speech
On the flipside of this coin we have the court’s decision handed down in Texas v. Johnson 491 U.S. 397 (1989), in which Mr. Johnson's conviction for flag desecration was held to be in violation of his first amendment rights. On a semi-related issue, in the case of Hustler Magazine, Inc. et alia v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), the portrayal of the well-known Falwell in a sexually compromising parody was held to be free speech, since it was clearly advertised as a fictitious ad, not a real one. Disregarding claims of personal (emotional) distress by Falwell, the court ruled that satire fell under the first amendment protection.
Amazingly, first amendment protection is even given to the likes of NAMBLA (the acronym for the acrimonious “North American Man-Boy Love Association“) whose credo states,
“The North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) supports the rights of all people to engage in consensual relations, and we oppose laws which destroy loving relationships merely on the basis of the age of the participants. “Is Speech Truly Free?
After this brief overview of speech, its championed causes, as well as its black-sheep relatives, we are left with the question just how free our speech truly is. In the course of the next set of articles, we will further explore the depths of our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.
Please take a look at your host’s book recommendation. This book makes a great gift for the student in your house or the politically minded friend or family member. Additionally, it will assist the interested reader in examining the texts and backgrounds of the rights that make this country great:
Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and Stifling of Democracy