• LAW: The First Amendment

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It is the basis for considering many laws having to do with the media and journalism. As such, it is of vital importance to journalists.

But its importance extends far beyond its legal effects on the practice and content of journalism. The First Amendment has codified a way in which our society operates and some of the most basic attitudes of society. It is important to understand the depth of meaning and importance of the First Amendment.

First, here is what the First Amendment says:

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.

The First Amendment was written by James Madison, the chief author of the U.S. Constitution and the man who would be become president of the United States in 1809.

As you can tell from reading it (and you should read it carefully), the First Amendment names the freedoms that are important to society: religion, speech, press, assembly and petitioning the government.

Because of the freedoms included, the First Amendment can be seen as the description of the “open society” that many of us assume for our civil life.

But what about journalism? What effect does the First Amendment have on the practice of journalism?

The First Amendment specifically prohibits Congress from enacting laws in there areas, but its meaning is far greater than that; over the years, this meaning as grown and changed by inferences and court decisions. Every generation interprets the First Amendment (and the rest of the Constitution). In general, we do not feel totally bound by what the Founding Fathers meant – their understanding was incomplete, and they could not foresee all of the contingencies.

So, what does the First Amendment really mean?

One of the things most people agree on is that the First Amendment prohibits prior restraint. This means that government officials cannot prevent things from being printed, broadcast or posted on the web. There is no “Office of Censorship” in the United States, and the government has only rarely stepped in to prevent publication.

Despite this strong tradition, there are those who want to try to solve societal problems by restricting the freedoms. Campaign finance laws, for instance, contain provisions that restrict participation in political campaigns, and many people believe that these restrictions are violations of the letter and spirit of the First Amendment.

Journalists should always be aware of – and should oppose – efforts to “solve problems” by demanding that freedom be restricted, especially First Amendment freedoms.

The First Amendment has meaning and effect beyond prohibiting governmental censorship. It has come to mean that there are positive rights that individuals in society have. These rights have evolved over many years and through court decisions and practices of society.

The nation seems to be in a state of perpetual war, and during times of crisis, individual freedoms are always in danger. Professor Dwight Teeter of the University of Tennessee discusses the state and strength of First Amendment freedoms today.

The nation seems to be in a state of perpetual war, and during times of crisis, individual freedoms are always in danger. Professor Dwight Teeter of the University of Tennessee discusses the state and strength of First Amendment freedoms today.

[vimeo width=”400″ height=”300″]http://vimeo.com/9852487[/vimeo]
Here are a few of the positive aspects of the First Amendment:

— enabling the right of people to speak and the process of speech;

— recognizing, to some extent, the value of symbolic speech, using symbols, actions rather than spoken words;

— recognizing the value of offensive speech – speech that people do not agree with or that offends beliefs, attitudes, public values, such as

— criticizing the president and other government officials

— burning the flag or a draft card

— understanding that restricting speech in one area can lead to restrictions in other areas;

— enabling the processes of the press, particularly reporting and publishing;

— fostering open government and the public’s “right to know” what their government is doing through laws mandating public meetings of government officials

— information that businesses must disclose

— reporters protection of sources and information

But there are limits to the protections that the First Amendment offers.

• Can we worship in any way we want?

• Can we gather – even peaceably – any way we want?

• Can we petition the government in any way we want? (symbolic speech)

• Can we say anything we want?

• Can we print anything we want?

No, there are restrictions to all of these. The First Amendment does not grant absolute freedom in any of these areas



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