What is the First Amendment?
Why is the First Amendment important?
The First Amendment is the first amendment to the Bill of Rights, which includes the original 10 amendments drafted immediately after the Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1788. Here, amendments are changes or additions to the Constitution that aren’t part of the original document.
In 1787, members of the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia to revise the founding document of the country, the Articles of Confederation. They decided to create a new one instead, and by September, they’d drafted the Constitution. Getting the new document approved, however, was another story. Many opposed this new Constitution because it didn’t specify the rights of the people. The Constitution was only passed after Congress promised to add a list of rights afterwards.
It’s this proposed list of rights—the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791—that yielded the First Amendment. Compared to some other amendments, it’s quite short. The full text 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.
The freedoms this amendment protects—religion, speech and the press, assembly, and petition—are called the First Amendment freedoms or rights, both officially and colloquially invoked in the US.
Due to its brevity and ambiguity, issues regarding the interpretation of the First Amendment have been perennial points of debate throughout American history. The specific application of these rights, like other rights, has been a matter often judged by the Supreme Court. For instance, cases have determined that the First Amendment’s free speech clause doesn’t protect “fighting words,” which is defined as speech intended to cause injury or breach of the peace, and that school libraries can’t remove books because school officials disagree with their content.
Examples of First Amendment
“The digital age, our age, will give rise to many novel and vexing questions relating to the scope and substance of First Amendment freedoms.”
—Jameel Jaffar, “What Is the Fate of the First Amendment in the Digital Age?” The Nation, January 4, 2017
“[P]eople have a First Amendment right to call for speech restrictions, just as they have a First Amendment right to call for gun bans or bans on Islam or government-imposed race discrimination or anything else that current constitutional law forbids.”
—Eugene Volokh, “No, Gov. Dean, there is no ‘hate speech’ exception to the First Amendment,” Washington Post, April 21, 2017
This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.
Cultural definitions for first amendment (1 of 2)
An amendment to the United States Constitution guaranteeing the rights of free expression and action that are fundamental to democratic government. These rights include freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. The government is empowered, however, to restrict these freedoms if expression threatens to be destructive. Argument over the extent of First Amendment freedoms has often reached the Supreme Court. (See clear and present danger, libel, and obscenity.)