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Free speech: Some First Amendment landmarks

The First Amendment right to free speech is the most widely understood US constitutional provision.

By Leigh MontgomeryStaff Writer / October 2, 2010



The First Amendment guarantees of free speech, press, religion, and assembly may be the constitutional provision most widely understood by Americans. Adopted in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, it reads:

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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.
First Amendment protections have been subject to challenges, particularly in regard to hate speech, wartime security, and the practice of religion as it intersects with the state.

Some landmarks in these areas include:

NATIONAL SECURITY

1798: The Alien and Sedition Act made it a crime to disparage or ridicule government officials with the intent to undercut public support for the government.
1918: The Sedition Act made it illegal to criticize the government or the US effort in World War I.
1950s: The general trend toward widening First Amendment rights hit serious shoals in this period when US-Soviet tensions were running high. The “Red Scare” – fears of the spread of Communism in the United States – propelled Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities to identify and designate various loyalties and organizations as subversive.
1971: The Supreme Court upheld the publication of the Pentagon Papers (a top-secret Defense Department report on Vietnam), ruling that prior restraints against speech or publication violate the First Amendment except in instances where the government can show an imminent threat to national security.

POLITICAL SPEECH

1969: The Supreme Court ruled that it was a violation of the First Amendment for an Iowa school district to suspend high school students for wearing black armbands with peace symbols.
1969: The First Amendment protects speech advocating criminal activity and even the overthrow of the government, the Supreme Court ruled in a case reversing the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader in Ohio. In contrast, the court said incitement to imminent lawless action by a speaker is not protected free speech.
1978: The right of a neo-Nazi group to march through Skokie, Ill., a largely Jewish community, was upheld by a federal appeals court. While hurtful, the threatened march – which never actually happened – was deemed a protected expression.
1989: On free speech grounds, the Supreme Court upheld the right to burn or desecrate the American flag for protest. The court said government may not prohibit the verbal or nonverbal expression of an idea merely because society finds the idea offensive or disagreeable.
2010: The Supreme Court invalidated a portion of a federal campaign finance law that made it illegal for corporations and labor unions to spend money to influence federal elections. The court said corporate officials and union leaders have a free speech right to spend money for advertisements and forms of political speech during election season.

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