Does The First Amendment Guarantee Freedom Of Expression Essay

Getting an education isn't just about books and grades - we're also learning how to participate fully in the life of this nation. (Because the future's in our hands!)

But in order to really participate, we need to know our rights - otherwise we may lose them. The highest law in our land is the U.S. Constitution, which has some amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights guarantees that the government can never deprive people in the U.S. of certain fundamental rights including the right to freedom of religion and to free speech and the due process of law. Many federal and state laws give us additional rights, too.

The Bill of Rights applies to young people as well as adults. And what I'm going to do right here is tell you about FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION.


The First Amendment guarantees our right to free expression and free association, which means that the government does not have the right to forbid us from saying what we like and writing what we like; we can form clubs and organizations, and take part in demonstrations and rallies. 


Yes. In 1969 in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District the Supreme Court held that students in public schools - which are run by the government - do not leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate. This means that you can express your opinions orally and in writing - in leaflets or on buttons, armbands or T-shirts. 

You have a right to express your opinions as long as you do so in a way that doesn't "materially and substantially" disrupt classes or other school activities. If you hold a protest on the school steps and block the entrance to the building, school officials can stop you. They can probably also stop you from using language that they think is "vulgar or indecent," so watch out for the dirty words, OK? 

Also, school officials may not censor only one side of a controversy. If they permit an article in the official school paper that says that premarital sex is bad, they may not censor an article that says premarital sex is good. 


Keep in mind - private schools have more leeway to set their own rules on free expression than public schools do.

It depends on whether the school is paying for producing the paper. If it is a completely student-run paper that you want to hand out in school, the school may not censor what you say or stop you from handing it out as long as the paper is not "indecent" and you do not "materially and substantially" disrupt school activities. (The school may place reasonable limits on the "time, place or manner" of handing it out.) The same rule applies to leaflets or buttons that you have created and paid for.

In the official school paper, however, you might have a problem publishing an article that discusses important but controversial issues like sex education, condom distribution, or drug abuse. That's because of a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. It said public school administrators can censor student speech in official school publications or activities -- like a school play, art exhibit, newspaper or yearbook -- if the officials think students are saying something "inappropriate" or "harmful" even if it is not vulgar and does not disrupt. 

Some states -- including Colorado, California, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts -- have "High School Free Expression" laws that give students more free speech rights than the Constitution requires. Check with your local ACLU to find out if your state has such a law. 


In your own publication, it's your right to criticize how the people who run your school do their jobs. But you can't print something about your teacher that you know or should know isn't true that makes him or her look bad. That might be libel, and that could get you into trouble.


It depends on what state you live in. In some states, students can wear their hair any way they want as long as it's not a safety hazard (like if your hair is very long, you have to tie it back during a science experiment). Courts in other states allow school hair codes - and where hair codes are permitted, so are dress codes. Check with your local ACLU about the laws in your state.

If you think your school's dress codes and hair codes are unfair and you want to challenge them, be aware that a court probably won't overturn the codes unless the judge finds that they're really unreasonable, or that they're discriminatory.


No. The Supreme Court has held that it is just as much a violation of your First Amendment rights for the government to make you say something you don't want to say as it is for the government to prevent you from saying what you do want to say. You have a right to remain silently seated during the pledge. 


This is a very complicated issue. Schools certainly have the right to pick the books they think have the greatest value for their students and to reject those that they believe have little value. On the other hand, if the school refuses to stock a book for "narrowly partisan or political," reasons - i.e., they just don't agree with the authors' viewpoints - that's censorship and censorship is unconstitutional. In a 1982 case called Island Trees v. Pico, the Supreme Court ruled that school boards can't remove books from a school library just because they don't agree with their content. But in many communities around the country, school administrators and librarians are under heavy pressure from religious and other groups to censor what we read and study.

If you believe that your school is censoring books because of their viewpoints, you, your teachers and the school librarian can challenge book censorship at your school or in court. The freedom to read is the freedom to think - and that's totally worth fighting for!

It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech . . . at the schoolhouse gates." 
--U.S. Supreme Court, Tinker v. Des Moines (1969)

We spend a big part of our life in school, so let's speak up! Join the student government! Attend school meetings! Petition your school administration! Talk about your rights with your friends! Don't forget, we are the future!

Produced by the ACLU Department of Public Education. 125 Broad Street, NY NY 10004. For more copies of this or any other Sybil Liberty paper, or to order the ACLU handbook The Rights of Students or other student-related publications, call 800-775-ACLU or visit us on the internet at 

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10b. First Amendment Rights

The Newseum, located in Arlington, Virginia, is a museum of news and press freedom. Thanks to the guarantees of the First Amendment, Americans have freer access to news than people in most countries.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or 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." -First Amendment to the Constitution

A careful reading of the First Amendment reveals that it protects several basic liberties — freedom of religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly. Interpretation of the amendment is far from easy, as court case after court case has tried to define the limits of these freedoms. The definitions have evolved throughout American history, and the process continues today.

Freedom of Religion

Deborah Weisman was a Jewish student who successfully sued her public school district in Rhode Island over a Christian graduation prayer in 1986. In her case, Weisman cited the First Amendment's clause against the state establishing any religion.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion in two clauses — the "establishment" clause, which prohibits the government from establishing an official church, and the "free exercise" clause that allows people to worship as they please. Notice that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the First Amendment, nor is it found anywhere else in the Constitution. Most people do not realize that the phrase was actually coined later by Thomas Jefferson. In 1802, when he was President, he wrote the opinion that the First Amendment's freedom of religion clause was designed to build "a wall of separation between Church and State."

Court cases that address freedom of religion have dealt with the rejection of prayer in public schools, the denial of aid to parochial schools, the banning of polygamy (the practice of having more than one wife), the restriction of poisonous snakes and drugs in religious rites, and limiting the right to decline medical care for religious purposes.

Freedoms of Speech and of the Press

Free speech is one of the most cherished liberties, but free speech often conflicts with other rights and liberties. The courts have had to consider the question, "What are the limits of free speech?"

The "clear and present danger" test is a basic principle for deciding the limits of free speech. It was set by the famous Schenck v. the United States case from World War I. Antiwar activist Charles Schenck was arrested for sending leaflets to prospective army draftees encouraging them to ignore their draft notices. The United States claimed that Schenck threatened national security, and the justices agreed. The principle was established that free speech would not be protected if an individual were a "clear and present danger" to United States security.

Manet's Olympia was considered obscene in 1865, but today is considered a masterpiece. As tastes in the arts change, the legal definitions of obscenity and free expression change as well.

What is free speech? The definition is not easy, and the courts have identified three types of free speech, each protected at a different level:

  • Pure speech is the verbal expression of thoughts and opinions before a voluntary audience. The courts have generally provided strong protection of pure speech from government regulation.
  • Speech-plus involves actions, such as demonstrating or protesting, as well as words. Speech-plus is not generally protected as strictly as is pure speech, because actions can be physically dangerous. The courts have ruled that demonstrators may not obstruct traffic, endanger public safety, or trespass illegally.
  • Symbolic speech technically involves no speech at all, but it involves symbols that the courts have judged to be forms of free expression. Symbolic actions such as wearing black armbands in school and draft-card burning fit this category. Symbolic speech is highly controversial, and as a rule, the courts have sometimes considered it to be beyond the limits of free speech. However, the Supreme Court did uphold the right of an individual to burn an American flag in the 1989 Texas vs. Johnson decision.

Many of the same principles that apply to freedom of speech apply to the press, but one with special meaning for the press is prior restraint. The courts have ruled that the government may not censor information before it is written and published, except in the most extreme cases of national security.

Freedom of Assembly and Petition

Freedom of assembly and petition are closely related to freedom of speech, and have been protected in similar ways. Former Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote, "Peaceable assembly for lawful discussion cannot be made a crime." Generally, that point of view has prevailed. Freedom of assembly has to be balanced with other people's rights if it disrupts public order, traffic flow, freedom to go about normal business or peace and quiet. Usually, a group must apply for a permit, but a government must grant a permit provided that officials have the means to prevent major disruptions.

For over 100 years after the ratification of the Constitution, the First Amendment protected these freedoms only in theory. As individuals in the 20th century have challenged the government in the courts when they believed their rights were assaulted, the First Amendment has taken on a stronger meaning. It remains the single most powerful instrument for protecting the sacred freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition for modern Americans.
Electronic Frontier Foundation
The Electronic Frontier Foundation was founded in 1990 to ensure that the principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights are protected as new communications technologies emerge. The EFF provides legal help to people who feel their "cyberspeech" rights are violated, and publicize instances of government attempts to censor the Internet. Their Blue Ribbon Campaign, the world's largest grassroots Internet organization, fights for free speech online internationally.

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People for the American Way
The first clauses of the First Amendment call for a separation of religion and government. People for the American Way is an activist lobbying organization which monitors religious groups it feels are trying to make government support their religious beliefs. It also pushes for legislation its members feel guarantee other First Amendment rights and related liberties.

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The Ruckus Society
The Ruckus Society is a training organization which provides training in non-violent civil disobedience skills to help environmental and human rights organizations protest. Members have participated in protests against timber cutting and both major national political conventions, among other things. Do you think that these actions are protected as freedom of speech and peaceable assembly under the First Amendment?

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free! — The Freedom Forum Online
The Freedom Forum is an international foundation dedicated to a free press and free speech for all the world's people. The foundation focuses on four main priorities: the Newseum, First Amendment issues, newsroom diversity and world press freedom.

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The 100 Most Banned Books of the Decade
Does Harry Potter corrupt the minds of children? How about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain? Check out list of the 100 most banned books of the 2000's provided by the American Library Association, an organization devoted to ensuring access to library materials for all while protecting the First Amendment. Then see if these books are in your school's library.

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One of the specific rights guaranteed in the First Amendment is freedom of the press. While this isn't always a reality, Americans do enjoy greater freedom to access information than most peoples. The Newseum bills itself as the world's only museum of news, and it's a great place to dive into a history of First Amendment press issues and the news industry in general.

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Culture Shock
Does an Edouard Manet nude have a place in a public gallery? What about art that contains ethnic stereotypes or racial slurs? Is Huckleberry Finn acceptable for a public classroom? These modern challenges to the arts often find their way into the courts as First Amendment issues. This PBS website examines the issue in a way which allows users to opt out of any imagery they may find disturbing.

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Freedom of Assembly: An Essential Element of Democracy
The same principle that protected participants in the civil rights movement, protected Ku Klux Klan members marching through an area populated by Holocaust survivors. The First Amendment doesn't specify what kind of assembly is allowed, which many people feel is essential to a democratic exchange of ideas. Find out why in this essay from the Freedom Forum.

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