Free speech: Some First Amendment landmarks

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

Cover Illustration by Laura Smith
This article is part of the cover story project in the Oct. 4, 2010 issue of The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine. Subscribe here:

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:

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:


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.


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.


1947: The Supreme Court upheld a New Jersey law that allows all parents – including those sending their children to parochial schools – to receive government reimbursement for bus transportation to and from school. The 5-to-4 decision set the stage for future debate over how high the “wall” should be separating church and state. The case is also the first time the high court enforced the protections of the First Amendment’s religion clause against state governments rather than just the federal government.
1962: The Supreme Court struck down an attempt by New York school officials to develop a neutral, nondenominational prayer for schoolchildren. The court ruled that any kind of prayer composed by public school districts, even nondenominational prayer, is unconstitutional government sponsorship of religion.
1963: The Supreme Court found Bible reading and prayer in school unconstitutional because its primary effect is to advance religion in violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of an establishment of religion.
1980: The Supreme Court struck down a Kentucky law authorizing the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools. The court ruled that it violated the First Amendment because it had no secular legislative purpose.
1992: The high court ruled that a prayer offered by a rabbi at a high school graduation ceremony violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause because it created coercive pressure for the graduates and their guests to participate in a religious activity.
2000: A prayer delivered by a student prior to a high school football game in Texas was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which said it amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
2005: In a mixed decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a Ten Commandments display be removed from a Kentucky courthouse, but decided that a six-foot-tall Ten Commandments monument outside the Texas Capitol could remain. The Kentucky display crossed the line as an unconstitutional endorsement and entanglement with religion, the court said, while the Texas display was part of a larger secular grouping of historic monuments.


1964: In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court made it significantly harder for public officials or public figures to successfully sue a news organization for libel. Under the test established in New York Times v. Sullivan, a public figure may prevail only if the news organization knew the challenged statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of the accuracy of the statement.

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