Guide to the First Amendment

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  1. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”

Neither the country nor the state can set up a church. They cannot pass laws to aid one religion over the others.

Today, this is often determined under the “Lemon” test, which is a three-part test established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman. Under the test, the government can assist religion only if the primary purpose of the assistance is secular, if the assistance doesn’t promote nor inhibit religion, and if there is no excessive entanglement between church and state.

2. “…Or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

American citizens have the right to accept any religious belief and engage in religious rituals or expression.

However, if that expression harms people or goes against the morals of the government, the Supreme Court may rule it unconstitutional.

3. “…Or abridging the freedom of speech”

Although freedom of speech is a complicated subject, citizens are generally allowed to speak or express their opinions without fear of the government infringing upon their speech.

From past Supreme Court cases, this has included the right to:

  • Not salute the flag
  • Protest war with armbands while at school
  • Use certain offensive words or phrases for political messages
  • Contribute money to political campaigns under certain circumstances
  • Engage in symbolic speech, such as flag burning

However, from these same free speech Supreme Court cases, citizens do not have the right to:

  • Incite actions that hurt others (such as shouting “fire” in a crowded theater)
  • Make or distribute obscene materials
  • Burn draft cards
  • Advocate or say certain things at a school-sponsored event

If the government makes any restrictions on speech, such as noise ordinances, they must be content neutral and allow plenty of other channels for communication.

4. “…Or of the press”

Citizens have a right to publish content and not to be moderated or censored by the government. However, there are regulations to deal with situations such as libel, obscene content and false advertising. The right is also variable for school newspapers.

5. “…Or the right of the people peaceably to assemble”

Citizens have a right to assemble peaceably. However, “time, place and manner” restrictions are generally allowed, which can include the requirement to obtain a permit.

The right also does not allow assemblies to be conducted where there is a clear and present danger of disorder, riot, interference with traffic or an immediate threat to public safety.

6. “…and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Citizens have a right to petition the government to have problems solved. This includes not only grievances against the government, but also other citizens, which is why citizens can sue each other.

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