First Amendment, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court
Freedom of and from religion and freedom of speech are the distinct provisions of the First Amendment; it gives citizens of the United States the unalienable human right to assembly and speech. However, the language is intentionally vague. The framers of the Constitution, anticipating unknown applications of the amendment, gave power to the Supreme Court to act as ultimate arbiter in matters involving its provisions. The Constitution of the United States is a living document and the interpretation of its amendments by the Supreme Court changes over time. Freedom of speech and the press, and religious freedom, are exercised according to the Supreme Court's rulings in cases that come before it. Exploration of these cases illuminates the evolving meaning of the First Amendment and the freedoms granted therein.
The First Amendment to the Constitution is partially designed to protect journalists and news-content publishers from state and federal government tyranny. It is generally accepted in the United States that a free press is beneficial in the creation of democracy. Americans have access to information and, in turn, this information provides them with the necessary knowledge to make informed decisions in governmental elections. News media also gives citizens an awareness of a variety of other important societal interests, including local and world events. The importance of a free press has not been lost on the Supreme Court. The decisions of the court have mostly favored an unrestricted press.
According to the provisions of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has generally ruled that the press is free to make statements about prominent public figures so long as the information is factual. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court held that a "State cannot […] award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves 'actual malice'" (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 1964). A statement that is made without "knowledge of its falsity" or without "reckless disregard of whether it was true or false" is protected speech according to the First Amendment (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 1964). Libel, slanderous or negative communication about an individual or organization, has been made difficult to prove in cases involving well-known individuals as a direct result of Supreme Court decisions. It is necessary for journalists to have some room for error and to be free from unfounded accusations of libel so that they may more effectively distribute news. The Supreme Court, through their decisions, has agreed with this sentiment.
It is not singularly in libel issues that Supreme Court has favored the First Amendment right of the press. Another major decision involving freedom of the press occurred during the Vietnam War. In 1971 the New York Times published an article under the heading "Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement" (Abrams, 2005). The article used a top-secret Pentagon analysis to describe four presidential administration's increasing commitments to stopping the spread of communism in Southeast Asia (Abrams, 2005). At issue was the United States' government's claim to prior restraint. Prior restraint is mainly used to stop publication and pull materials that the government does not wish to reach the public (Schmidt, Shelley, & Bardes, 2009). In opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that the "Government 'thus carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the imposition of such a restraint.' […] The District Court for the Southern District of New York, in the New York Times case […] held that the Government had not met that burden. We agree" (New York Times Co. v. United States, 1971). The ruling has made it difficult for the government to restrain materials once they have reached the press.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and New York Times Co. v. United States both demonstrate the willingness of the Supreme Court to give far-reaching freedoms to the press. Publishers of news are not heavily regulated in the United States and, as a result, Americans are better informed about the issues that confront them. The Supreme Court understands what is necessary to keep publishers unrestricted and their decisions have reflected this.
The press is not the only body that is expressly protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment also grants American citizens the freedom to express their religious preferences in the manner of their choosing. There is no state-sponsored religion in the United States, as ensured by the First Amendment. Whether religious or not, the people of the United States are protected in their beliefs so long as those beliefs do not infringe upon others. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld this right through various rulings. However, other interested parties have contended that the separation of church and state should not be total. The Supreme Court has settled these cases differently.
The Supreme Court has upheld the tenet of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The high court has ruled in favor of a separation of church and state and the non-establishment of religion in state-sponsored organizations. In 1951, New York's State Board of Regents adopted a prayer and recommended that all schools in the state begin reciting it once daily (Gold, 2005). A group of Long Island parents objected to the prayer and brought a petition before the lower and, through appeal, the higher courts (Gold, 2005). The Supreme Court disagreed with the lower court's judgment, stating, "state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited in the public schools […] even if the prayer is denominationally neutral" (Engel v. Vitale, 1962). This landmark decision has been respected; public schools and state institutions must not introduce religious elements into their otherwise secular settings.
While public schools and state institutions are barred from including religious elements in their function, the Supreme Court has given religious enterprises more latitude. In Mueller v. Allen, the Supreme Court heard a case brought by Minnesota taxpayers against parochial schools (1983). Minnesotans took issue with religious schools obtaining tax cuts for tuition, textbooks and transportation, which were available to non-religious schools (Mueller v. Allen, 1983). The Supreme Court justices were not convinced that the tax break violated the First Amendment, "holding that the statute is neutral on its face and in its application and does not have a primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion" (Mueller v. Allen, 1983). Tax cuts for religious institutions, unlike prayer in state funded ones, do not violate the First Amendment because the cuts themselves are non-religious in function.
The distinction between advocating particular religions and separating religion from state is a contentious one in the United States. The Supreme Court has by and large held that practitioners are free in their beliefs and free from institutional promotions of any belief system. The court has also ruled that state tax rights that do not promote a brand of religion, and by extension all state laws that might affect a religious institution but do not advocate one in particular, do not violate the First Amendment.
Free speech, like religious freedom, is a well-protected right of Americans and the Supreme Court has agreed. Freedom of speech, as outlined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, grants United States citizens the fundamental right to express, in all forms of media, their views and opinions, their thoughts and preferences, and any number of communicable ideas. Americans are not bound to state-ideology or religious mandates. They have a general expectation that their spoken and published ideas will not lead to persecution in any form. Freedom of speech is however limited in particular ways. The Supreme Court has ruled that free speech is not all encompassing and there are certain instances where specific speech is not allowed.
One instance of restricted speech involves the willful expression of both false and dangerous ideas. In Schenck v. United States, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that "the right of free speech is not absolute because, in fact, there exist certain words a person cannot speak in certain contexts at certain times and still receive First Amendment protection" (Campbell, 1990). In 1917, Charles Schenck, a high-ranking member of the Socialist party, supervised the printing and distribution leaflets urging men to resist the draft. The Espionage Act, which made it illegal to attempt to overthrow the government through unlawful or violent means, was passed by congress in the same year (Campbell, 1990). Schenck was convicted according to the law under the Espionage Act. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision, stating in opinion that the "most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic" (Schenck v. United States, 1919). Speech that has the potential to cause injury or death, or destruction of property, and serves no conceivable purpose is unlawful according to this pivotal decision.
Another restricted form of speech includes material that is deemed indecent or obscene. In Roth v. United…