The First Amendment

December 08, 1991

Next Sunday marks the 200th anniversary of the ratification of the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These guarantees of individual rights were deemed a necessary promise in 1789 when states were debating whether to ratify the Constitution itself. Upon ratification of the Constitution, the first Congress promptly wrote 12 amendments and sent them to the states. The first two amendments, dealing with apportionment of House seats and congressional salaries, were rejected. The others were adopted on Dec. 15, 1791, 810 days after submission, and became the familiar Bill of Rights. We will comment on these daily here over the next week.

We start with the First, of course, and not because it is so important to journalism. The need for protection of a free press from government control is so obvious -- and has been discussed in these columns so many times -- that today we will note only the other great protections of the amendment. The First forbids laws giving any religion government sanction and forbids prohibitions of the free exercise of all religious beliefs. It also forbids abridging freedom of speech, the right of people to assemble "peaceably" and to petition government for a redress of grievances .

While it was once thought that peaceful assemblies were due constitutional protection only when petitioning government, the amendment's scope has grown over the years to include social protest marches, other demonstrations meant more to advance ideas than affect government action and certain forms of dispute resolution between private entities, such as picketing.

Similarly, free speech has expanded to protect not just commentary on government but the teaching of controversial and even doubtful doctrines in educational institutions, "symbolic" speech, including such provocations as flag burning, and commercial and "artistic" speech that deals with areas of activity that would amaze the Framers of the Constitution, or at least cause them to blush.

Every generation has produced critics of some form of speech protected by the First Amendment, yet every generation has embraced its expansion. It is truly the "first" amendment, indispensable to the maintenance of responsive popular government and to the maintenance and expansion of freedom.

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