The First Amendment provides some of the most basic and fundamental rights guaranteed to people in the United States. Of these fundamental rights, many consider the rights to freedom of speech and press paramount. Both the federal and state governments are prohibited from limiting an individual’s rights to expression, whether it is through speech, press, assembly, or association.
The freedom of speech, specifically, is the right to express one’s beliefs without any form of governmental interference. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech by prohibiting the government from:
- Prohibiting a person’s right to express them
- Preventing one from receiving another’s expression
- Requiring someone to express certain views against their will
- Forcing someone to limit their speech when another objects
Freedom of the press or freedom of the media is the right given to the media to communicate and express free speech through media and published material without any governmental interference. This means that the government cannot tell the media what to write and what not to write. However, there are some exceptions to this rule under the FCC laws.
The right to free speech is an essential ingredient to any civilized and healthy society. Some of the benefits of free speech include:
- Encourages self-governance
- Promotes societal tolerance and self-restraint
- Helps ensure that government officials do not abuse their power
- Helps develop moral virtue
As Americans, we are fortunate to have a guaranteed right to freedom of expression. This right allows us to express ourselves freely, through any medium, without fear of government prosecution or censorship. Under the First Amendment, you can:
- Participate in a political protest
- Buy, sell, and possess explicit pornography as long as it does not meet the definition of "hardcore obscenity," which includes child pornography
- Write, publish, and distribute anti-government propaganda
- Burn the American flag in public as a symbol of protest
- Have visible piercings and tattoos
Although the First Amendment grants a right to freedom of speech, not all speech is constitutionally protected. Some forms of speech are unprotected, while a number of other forms of speech receive limited or conditional protection. These types of speech are denied full protection because the Supreme Court of the United States has determined that the intrinsic value of such speech is nominal. The following categories of speech are constitutionally unprotected:
- Speech that tends to incite immediate lawlessness
- Obscenity and pornography in particular circumstances, such as obscenity in children’s television shows and child pornography
- Fighting words in limited circumstances
- Offensive speech in limited circumstances
The government also may decide what its own personnel and employees are allowed to say while they are on official duty and may either sponsor some speech, but not others. If a government worker is saying things that are not part of their official governmental duty, then the government cannot limit this kind of speech.
If you feel that your constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of speech or the press have been compromised, you should contact a government attorney. Speaking with a lawyer will inform you of your rights as well as preserve any possible legal remedies you may have.