“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.”
One of the most important rights the First Amendment safeguards is freedom of expression, also known as free speech. This right sets America apart from other countries whose governments place restrictions on the ability to express opinions.
What Is Freedom of Expression?
Freedom of expression, put simply, is the right to express your views without worrying about the government punishing you for it. The term “speech” can be used to describe nearly all ways of communicating thoughts. It could include verbal, nonverbal, visual, or symbolic means. For example, a person who draws cartoons is engaging in speech that is protected by the First Amendment, even if they make fun of a politician.
The founding fathers felt it necessary to include freedom of speech in the Constitution because the people who came to America from England did not have the right to speak their minds protected in law. Even today, individuals residing in the United Kingdom can be imprisoned for making comments that are considered offensive.
While the First Amendment protects most types of speech, there are some scenarios in which the law does not protect expression. One such case would be defamation. This means people are not allowed to knowingly spread lies that could harm another person’s reputation.
Another type of speech that the First Amendment does not protect is incitement. In short, you cannot publicly call for the murder of someone you dislike. There are other forms of speech that are not protected, but these are the most commonly cited.
Why Should We Protect Free Speech?
Protecting free speech is one of the most important things the Constitution does for American citizens. Without free speech, the government would be allowed to oppress its citizens without fearing punishment.
Another benefit of free speech is that it allows us to share ideas and develop ways to create a better society. If the United States did not protect free speech during the time of slavery, abolitionists would not have been able to speak out and persuade the rest of the nation to free the slaves. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would not have led a movement that resulted in giving civil rights to black Americans in the 1960s.
Some believe that the government should place more restrictions on speech. They do not want Americans to make certain types of comments. While many use their freedom for negative purposes, it would be more harmful to use the government to silence them. If the state can silence individuals for having horrible views, it can eventually silence us all.