The constitution of the united states, under the First Amendments provides that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” (Cohen 36). The constitution continues to add that “Congress shall make no law…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.” (Cohen 36). This paper covers the basic provisions of the First Amendment in regard to free speech.
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In earlier times, the Americans who protested against oppressive leadership did so at their own peril as the doctrine of “seditious libel” which had been incorporated into the law permitted prosecution for “false, scandalous and malicious writing…that had the intent to defame or to bring into contempt or disrepute…a private party or the government” (Sunstein 12). In addition, truth was not accommodated as a defense in the face of the law.
Later, the First Amendments gave the Americans the right to speak and think freely. The amendments recognized unchallengeable and natural rights. Among many other important issues, the amendment provided that “Congress shall make no law…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” (Sunstein 12).
Top of the agenda was liberty of expression and freedom of inquiry. Another theme that was very fundamental was questioning of the authority. This was in response to the tendency of the government to enact authoritarian dealings in order to silence its opponents. One thinker of the time claimed that a citizen had the right to “say everything which his passions suggest; he may employ all his time and all his talents…to do so, in speaking against the government matters that are false, scandalous and malicious ” (Sunstein 15). Even with this freedom, the citizen was “safe within the sanctuary of the press” (Sunstein 15). The speech was considered to go further than the reach of unlawful sanctions and only palpable acts could be disciplined.
The freedom of expression which encompasses the press, petition and the assembly is very essential in the lives of Americans because of four primary reasons. First, freedom of expression is the groundwork of self-fulfillment as it makes it possible for people to become conscious of their full potential. “The right of individuals to express their thoughts, desires, and aspirations, and to communicate freely with others, affirms the dignity and worth of each and every member of society” (Sunstein 12). Thus, freedom of expression is an end in itself and should not be subordinated to any other goals of society.
Second, freedom of expression is essential for the achievement and development of knowledge. John Stuart Mill suggested that “enlightened judgment is possible only if one considers all facts and ideas, from whatever source, and tests one’s own conclusions against opposing views”(Sunstein 23). Third, freedom of expression is an essential component of the system of self-government. It is argued that the Americans must be well- informed if they are to remain truly independent. All points of view, ideas and information must be put at their disposal. Furthermore, mass ignorance hatches ignorance. Enlightened and informed citizenry is the basis for a free society.
Fourth, freedom of expression prevents the government from engaging in excesses and corruption. These human conditions are his inherent features. “Restrictions on freedom of speech always authorize the government to decide how, and against whom, the restrictions should apply” (Sunstein 23). The freedom of expression is so fundamental that the government should never try to shorten it.
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The First Amendment protects the symbolic speech besides the pure speech which is reflected in rallies, demonstrations, picketing, leaflets and so on. The symbolic speech involves nonverbal expression that aims at conveying ideas. In addition, slogans or declarations on T-shirts, fashion statements, music lyrics, theatrical performances and images in work of arts are examples of other expression which are protected.
The government has the freedom to place restrictions based on time, place and manner, so long as they are reasonable. For example, “requiring people to obtain a permit to hold a meeting in a public building, or to conduct a demonstration that may interfere with traffic, constitutes a justifiable regulation” (Bunker 206). However, restrictions that are too oppressive are considered to violate the First Amendments. For instance, “during the 1960s, officials in Southern cities frequently required civil rights activists to apply for permits in order to hold demonstrations, and then granted or denied the permits arbitrarily” (Krotoszynskiv 56).
Despite its importance in guaranteeing freedom of speech, the freedom of speech is undergoing severe tests nowadays, just like other times in the history of Bill of Rights. The government of the day is always trying to overstep its powers in a manner that challenges the right to free expression, particularly owing to the fact that the right is not absolute. Importantly however, official depredations of the rights must persistently receive protection.
Bunker, Matthew. Free speech: First Amendment theory and the challenge of interdisciplinary. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. 206. Print.
Cohen, Henry. Freedom of Speech and Press: Exceptions to the First Amendment. Washington DC: DIANE, 2010. 36. Print.
Krotoszynski, Ronald. The First Amendment in cross-cultural perspective: a comparative legal analysis of the freedom of speech. New York: NYU Press, 2006. Print.
Sunstein, Cass. Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech. London: Simon and Schuster, 1995. Print.