Skip to Content

First Amendment to the United States Constitution

« Back to Glossary Index

**First Amendment Protections**:
– Prohibits government from making laws regarding religion.
– Prevents laws restricting free exercise of religion.
– Safeguards freedom of speech and the press.
– Protects the right to peaceful assembly.
– Allows people to petition the government for grievances.

**Historical Context and Legal Interpretations**:
– First Amendment applied only to the federal government initially.
– States had official religions post-ratification.
– Everson v. Board of Education incorporated the Establishment Clause.
– Supreme Court rulings ensure neutrality in matters of religion.
– Evolution from federal to state applicability of the First Amendment.

**Government Neutrality in Religious Matters**:
– Government must not finance religious groups.
– Cannot undertake religious instruction.
– Secular and sectarian education should not be blended.
– Secular institutions must not impose a specific religion.
– Government should remain neutral in the competition between different religious sects.

**Establishment Clause Principles**:
– Forbids laws establishing religion.
– Prevents fusion of governmental and religious functions.
– Acts as a double security.
– Prohibits government sponsorship of religion.
– Ensures laws are secular, evenhanded, and neutral.

**Supreme Court Rulings and Interpretation Challenges**:
– Various legal tests developed to assess Establishment Clause violations.
Lemon test remains significant for enforcing the Establishment Clause.
– Evolution of legal tests like the endorsement test and coercion test.
– Recent cases revisiting the Lemon Test.
– Critiques and modifications to legal tests like Agostini v. Felton and Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.

The First Amendment (Amendment I) to the United States Constitution prevents the government from making laws respecting an establishment of religion; prohibiting the free exercise of religion; or abridging the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the freedom of assembly, or the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. It was adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights was proposed to assuage Anti-Federalist opposition to Constitutional ratification. Initially, the First Amendment applied only to laws enacted by the Congress, and many of its provisions were interpreted more narrowly than they are today. Beginning with Gitlow v. New York (1925), the Supreme Court applied the First Amendment to states—a process known as incorporation—through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Court drew on Thomas Jefferson's correspondence to call for "a wall of separation between church and State", though the precise boundary of this separation remains in dispute and the terms "church" and "State" do not appear in the Amendment. Speech rights were expanded significantly in a series of 20th and 21st century court decisions which protected various forms of political speech, anonymous speech, campaign finance, pornography, and school speech; these rulings also defined a series of exceptions to First Amendment protections. The Supreme Court overturned English common law precedent to increase the burden of proof for defamation and libel suits, most notably in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). Commercial speech, however, is less protected by the First Amendment than political speech, and is therefore subject to greater regulation.

The Free Press Clause protects publication of information and opinions, and applies to a wide variety of media. In Near v. Minnesota (1931) and New York Times v. United States (1971), the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected against prior restraint—pre-publication censorship—in almost all cases. The Petition Clause protects the right to petition all branches and agencies of government for action. In addition to the right of assembly guaranteed by this clause, the Court has also ruled that the amendment implicitly protects freedom of association.

Although the First Amendment applies only to state actors, there is a common misconception that it prohibits anyone from limiting free speech, including private, non-governmental entities. Moreover, the Supreme Court has determined that protection of speech is not absolute.

« Back to Glossary Index