The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was written to include the most important basic personal freedoms that American citizens enjoy but which were not specifically covered in the body of the Constitution itself. The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a national religion and includes the Five Freedoms; the freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the right of citizens to assemble peacefully and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
During the debates that occurred while writing and establishing the Constitution, many opponents charged that the document did not include a strong declaration of basic personal rights. During the ratification process of the Constitution several states asked for such a declaration in the form of amendments, while other states ratified the document only with the provision that the amendments would be soon added.
Delegate George Mason of Virginia had earlier written Virginia’s Declaration of Rights and his strong protests, plus Thomas Jefferson’s statements, prompted James Madison to draft the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. Madison drew heavily on Mason’s earlier work.
A key provision of the First Amendment is that the federal government may not establish a national religion. When the Constitution was created, six of the original thirteen states already ran established churches. The intent of this clause was to protect those state churches against potential actions of the federal government. Those states would not have signed the Constitution without this protection.
The free exercise of religion clause prohibits the government from unfairly restricting religious activities. It also prohibits the government from showing preference of one religion over another.
The freedom of speech clause is one of the broadest in the free world. It allows citizens to speak freely. However, later necessary limitations include protections against obscenities, child pornography, hate speech, fighting words, libel, and slander.
The freedom of the press clause allows all manner of publications to freely print appropriate news, information, and opinion. Necessary limitations are similar to the limitations on speech.
The freedom to assemble and to petition clauses reflect the bad experiences that the colonists had during the rule by the British government. The clause allows an individual to petition all three branches of the government for redress of grievances. It also grants the right to gather signatures in support of a cause or to lobby the government in support of or opposition to legislation.
The freedom to assemble allows citizens to come together to pursue common interests. It also allows citizens to march, demonstrate, protest, or carry signs in order to express their opinion in a nonviolent way. This is also known as the freedom of association.
The beginning of the First Amendment states specifically that “Congress shall make no law…” This wording led to the interpretation that state and local governments were not bound by the amendment and could pass legislation that was contrary to the First Amendment. This mistake was corrected by the Fourteenth Amendment which, among other provisions, made the First Amendment binding on all governments below the federal level.
It seems quite fitting that this amendment, with all of its major individual rights protections, should be listed as the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.