The 1st Amendment provides for arguably the most important rights included in the Bill of Rights. They are often called the “First Freedoms”: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of press, and the freedom to petition and assemble. The First Freedoms form the basis of political and civic participation in American society.
The first right laid out in the 1st Amendment is the freedom of religion. An important topic in the Founding Era, James Madison had spent much of his early political career fighting for religious freedom in Virginia, and the freedom of religion as it appears in the Bill of Rights clearly bears Madison’s fingerprints. There are two religion clauses. The first, called the Establishment Clause, prohibits government from declaring an official religion. The second, called the Free Exercise Clause, guarantees the freedom to worship as one chooses. These two important concepts are related, but distinct. Sometimes, they can even conflict with one another. Debates about precisely what they mean have been going on for hundreds of years and continue to this day. Together, the two religion clauses guaranteed an unprecedented degree of religious freedom in the new American nation.
Next come the Speech and Press Clauses of the 1st Amendment. Together, they protect what is often called the “Freedom of Expression.” The Freedoms of Speech and Press are essential for the operation of a representative government and form the basis for political and civic participation in American government, making them arguably the most politically important provisions in the Bill of Rights. They allow for open discussion of public policy, the relative merits (and faults) of political candidates, and, perhaps most importantly, for the criticism and accountability of our government. Over the past two centuries our interpretation of the Speech and Press Clauses has both broadened and strengthened significantly. While prior restraint by government remains strictly prohibited in almost all circumstances, the same is true of government interference with speech after the speech has occurred.
Stemming directly from the freedoms of speech and press are the rights to assembly and petition that make up the last part of the 1st Amendment. Like many other rights listed in the first ten amendments, the meaning of the Petition and Assembly Clauses has expanded over the years. They now apply to state as well as federal laws, and the original right to assemble for political purposes has expanded into a broad category of “expressive association.” Attempts to assemble for political petition or other advocacy have nonetheless often been prohibited through the enforcement of laws upholding societal interests unrelated to the assembly (e.g., sanitation, disturbing the peace, or interrupting traffic). Laws that have the effect of preventing otherwise lawful assembly have generally been upheld so long as they do not discriminate against some groups or favor others.