The first amendment states, "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
The inhabitants of the North American colonies did not have a legal
right to express opposition to the British government that ruled them.
Nonetheless, throughout the late 1700s, these early Americans did voice their
discontent with the crown. For example they strongly denounced the British
parliament's enactment of a series of tax levies to pay off a large national
debt that England incurred in its Seven Years War with France. In newspaper
articles, pamphlets and through boycotts, the colonists raised what would become
their battle cry: "No taxation without representation!" And in 1773, the
people of the Massachusetts Bay Colony demonstrated their outrage at the tax on
tea in a dramatic act of civil disobedience, the Boston Tea Party.(Eldridge,15)
The stage was set for the birth of the First Amendment, which formally
recognized the natural and inalienable rights of Americans to think and speak
freely. The first Amendments early years were not entirely auspicious.
Although the early Americans enjoyed great freedom compared to citizens of other
nations, even the Constitution's framer once in power, could resist the string
temptation to circumvent the First Amendment's clear mandate. Before the 1930s,
we had no legally protected rights of free speech in anything like the form we
now know it. Critics of the government or government officials, called
seditious libel, was oftenly made a crime. Every state had a seditious libel
law when the Constitution was adopted. And within the decade of the adoption of
the First Amendment, the founding fathers in congress initiated and passed the
repressive Alien and Sedition act (1798). This act was used by the dominant
Federalists party to prosecute a number of prominent Republican newspaper
editors.(Kairys,3) When Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1801 they also
prosecuted their critics. More than 2,000 people were prosecuted, and many
served substantial prison te...
... middle of paper ...
...o preserve freedom of
expression have taught us anything, it is that the first target of government
suppression is never the last. Whenever government gains the power to decide
who can speak and what they can say, the first Amendment rights of all of us are
in danger of being violated. But when all people are allowed to express their
views and ideas, the principles of democracy and liberty are enhanced. American
democracy should mean more than the right to picket when you are really upset or
pissed at the system and to vote every four years in elections devoid of content
or context. Change will require, as it has in the past, recognition that free
speech and democracy are political, not narrowly legal, issues. And it will
also require an enlargement of our understanding of such rights to include
public access to the various mass media.
Eldridge, Larry D. A Distant Heritage: The Growth of Free Speech in Early
America. New York: New York University Press, 1994.
Kairys, David. The Politics of Law In These Times. New York. Patheon Press, 1991.
McWhirter, Darien A. Freedom of Speech, Press, and Assembly, Phoenix AZ: Oryx
The World Book Encyclopedia.1995.
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