Why You Should Care About the First Amendment
The First Amendment gives each of us freedom:
- To set our own values.
- To express ourselves openly on whatever topic we want without fear of government control or punishment.
- To join with others to make our views known and perhaps create positive change on behalf of all of us.
These freedoms can help define who we are as individuals in a complex, changing, self-governing society.
The highest purpose of free expression is to bring about change in society. The First Amendment contains five different freedoms that allow us to do that. Freedom of religion allows us to develop our own values. Freedom of speech lets us express our views and values even when they’re critical of current systems. The freedom of the press allows us to get uncensored information about the world around us. Then you have freedoms of petition and assembly, which allow us to gather with like-minded people and ask for change. These are our most vital tools to having and living in the society that we want.
— Lata Nott, Freedom Forum fellow for the First Amendment
The First Amendment is the ultimate embodiment of just “feeling free.” In addition to being able to say what I want to say, I can read what I want to read, watch what I want to watch and listen to what I want to listen to. Now, I may not want to read a particular book, watch a particular television program or movie, or listen to a particular song or podcast, but it’s an exceedingly comforting feeling to know that my chosen book, program, movie, song or podcast is always waiting for me when I want it.
— Kevin Goldberg, Freedom Forum First Amendment specialist
The five freedoms protected by the First Amendment are what define us as a nation. They are unique in history and unique in the world today. In the founders’ view, it was absolutely essential to a self-governing nation that citizens be able to freely discuss, debate and decide on the best possible solutions for the greatest number of people. Our First Amendment freedoms make democracy work.
— Gene Policinski, Freedom Forum senior fellow for the First Amendment
All of our liberties flow from the First Amendment. By exercising freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, Americans have expanded civil rights and worked to create a more just and free society. Simply put, no significant movement for change in our history would have been possible without the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. We still have much work to do. But thanks to the First Amendment, Americans are protected to advance the ongoing struggle to achieve “liberty and justice for all.”
— Charles Haynes, Freedom Forum senior fellow for religious liberty
The First Amendment is our blueprint for personal freedom, what Justice Benjamin Cardozo called the “matrix” – the indispensable freedom that ensures all other liberties. The First Amendment gives us the right to criticize government officials, to practice whatever religious faith we want or none at all, to report on controversial issues, to assemble together and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The First Amendment gives us the opportunity to participate in our government, to make our voices heard, and to dissent from majoritarian views. It is the essence of freedom.
— David L. Hudson Jr., First Amendment fellow of the Freedom Forum and law professor at Belmont University
This freedom protects all – even the growing number of religiously unaffiliated, or “nones” – as we each decide what values, principles and beliefs shape our lives, by forbidding the government from telling us what to think or believe.
Sometimes called the right of conscience, it protects all from action by government to control our thoughtful independence and prohibits the government from supporting any one faith or personal belief over others.
This freedom protects the expression of our individual values, ideas and opinions and prevents the government from stifling the spoken word and from controlling any of the ways we reach out to others. The government cannot control or punish any of us for what we choose to say, with very few exceptions that include defamation, true threats, obscenity, fraud and incitement to violent acts that endanger others. The government cannot silence any of us for the way we choose to speak – subject to reasonable “time, place and manner” rules so we don’t unfairly intrude on others’ rights.
This freedom protects our right to gather and report news and information, whether that is a news story, broadcast or post, a restaurant review or a political opinion. The information gathered by journalists allows people to make decisions and participate in democracy, such as by voting or petitioning the government.
This freedom protects our right to gather with people who hold the same views, whether that is in a meeting room, a stadium rally or with a single other person on a sidewalk. It is a clear path from developing our individual views to reaching out to others and meeting with those who share or support your views as a means of organizing and amplifying a message to make change or support the status quo.
The least-known freedom protects the ultimate use of the other four freedoms to defend and refine our system of laws and self-government. It protects us when speaking out to those in power, seeking change or asking for no change. It may protect actual petitions you might sign. It also protects speaking out at a local city council session or school board meeting. And it ensures our right to gather with others to hire someone else – a lobbyist, for example – to go to the government on our behalf.
Keep in mind:
The First Amendment only restrains the government’s power – not that of parents or private employers, for example.
The First Amendment in action
Protecting the First Amendment rights of others can be very hard to do. But defending these core freedoms for others – even those we strongly disagree with – protects our freedoms from anyone else who would take them away from us.
Here are some examples of people who exercised their First Amendment rights – and protected ours in the process:
We explore the impact of the 2022 Free Expression Awards honorees.
It’s 45 words to live by each day.
These U.S. Olympic athletes flexed their muscles for freedom. Some paid a price for speaking out. But all led change.
Being an American means you do not have to choose between your deepest beliefs and your country – thanks, in part, to the work of these Indian Americans.
Many of our most important First Amendment freedoms have been advanced thanks to unsavory characters.
Few people in history have so exemplified the hopes of the nation’s founders that the First Amendment would enable future generations to make this country a better place.
Why the Freedom Forum cares about the First Amendment
The Freedom Forum views the First Amendment as the cornerstone of our government by, for and of the people. We envision a nation where everyone knows, understands, values and defends those freedoms. And we believe that encouraging the broad understanding and vigorous use of these fundamental freedoms by the people is the best way to preserve and protect the First Amendment for future generations.
It’s not just us – Americans care about the First Amendment
Our conversations with people of all ages from all over the country show that we are not alone in our love for the First Amendment.
61% say the First Amendment can help bridge divisions in our country.
Where Americans stand on the First Amendment in 2022.
A wide range of First Amendment advocates and experts weigh in on what Americans say about the First Amendment.
Learn more about the First Amendment
The Freedom Forum can help you better understand the First Amendment, how it works and how it affects you:
What speech is protected by the First Amendment? What speech isn’t? Learn all about protected speech in this guide.
Get the essentials on one of the most consequential laws governing speech on the internet.
The Jan. 6 insurrection started as a rally protected by the First Amendment, but within hours moved outside its protections.
Two of the least-known First Amendment freedoms are being tested.