The Importance of the First Amendment

The Importance of the First Amendment

The Importance of the First Amendment


The First Amendment, the first forty-five (45) words of the Bill of Rights, is the blueprint for personal liberty, the key to individual self-fulfillment, and the essence of constitutional democracy.

It allows us to believe in whatever religious faith we want – or none at all.  It protects both the religious devout and the fiercely atheistic.  It gives us the ability to express ourselves, even quite critically of political leaders.  It ensures that we can march, protest or assembly together peaceably for social causes, and to “petition our government for a redress of grievances.”

The First Amendment contains five textual freedoms – religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.   But, the U.S. Supreme Court has explained that it also protects the freedom of association – both the right to associate together and the right not to associate with others.

Perhaps most importantly, the First Amendment is important because it is inextricably intertwined with freedom of thought.  As the recently retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in 2002: “The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.”

It was another Supreme Court Justice – from years ago – Benjamin Cardozo who described the First Amendment as “the matrix, the indispensable condition” necessary for the protection of other individual liberties.

Sometimes the First Amendment receives a bad reputation.  Many judge it by some of the miscreants it protects – the flagburner, the funeral protestor, and the foul-mouth provocateur.  But, the First Amendment protects those who galvanize society toward progress.  The women suffragist of the 1910s and the civil rights protesters of the 1950s and 1960s exercised their First Amendment freedoms to change society for the better.   John Lewis once said the civil rights movement without the First Amendment was like “a bird without wings.”

Yes, the First Amendment protects much expression, belief, and even expressive conduct that we don’t like.  It protects a great deal of offensive, obnoxious, and even repugnant speech.   But, that is important in a free society.

Justice Cardozo was correct.  The First Amendment is “the matrix.”

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