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The Constitution of the United States was ratified in 1788 and went into effect that year. However, this ratification was possible only because of the promise to amend the Constitution. The amendments would be in the form of a Bill of Rights that protected both the civil and legal rights of Americans.
The first ten amendments to the Constitution were ratified in 1791. These amendments are commonly known as the Bill of Rights.
Amendment One- Freedom of Religion, Speech, and the Press; Rights of Assembly and Petition.
“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.”
This amendment guarantees freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition. It means that Congress may not set up a national religion, or make laws limiting religious freedom.
The First Amendment prohibits Congress from enacting a statute that sets up a national religion supported by pubic funds. It also prohibits the use of federal funds to support any religion. The amendment further prohibits the passage of laws denying full rights to believers in a particular religion, or to those who have no religious beliefs. These rights, and all First Amendment rights, were later extended by the 14th Amendment (1868) to include citizens of all the states. This means that state legislatures, as well as Congress, are bound by the Bill of Rights.
The First Amendment also states that Congress may not abridge freedom of speech and freedom of the press. This part of the amendment serves to protect the freedoms of speech and the press for all Americans. Freedom of speech and press includes the right of people to express and print unpopular ideas. This can include criticism of the government, its officials, and of ordinary people. Such criticism may be harsh and somewhat inaccurate, but it cannot be prevented by law.
There are, of course, special instances when the government may limit freedom of speech and the press. This happens in times of war or other emergency. Even then, there may be differences of opinion of what the government may do and for how long a period of time.
The First Amendment does not allow people or the press to express harmful or dangerous untruths about individual people, businesses, or the government. Such untruths are called “libel” and those who are libeled may sue for monetary damages.
Finally, the First Amendment forbids congress to make any law:
“…abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government…”
This last portion of the First Amendment guarantees the right of the people to hold public meetings. Those meetings can be on any subject, as long as the public safety is not put in danger. For example, a public meeting that urges people to riot may not be held. Even so, the right to assemble and hold public meetings may not be abridged because the purpose of the meeting is unpopular. It is even the responsibility of public officials and the police to protect those who hold legal meetings, even though these officials and public service employees may oppose the purpose of the meeting.
The right to assemble also extends to the right to circulate and sign petitions. The purpose of the petition may offend or anger some public officials, the police, or the general public, but the right to circulate and sign petitions must be allowed under the First Amendment.
Limits on the First Amendment
Although the First Amendment offers much protection of civil and legal rights, there are limits to those protections. Previously it was stated that freedom of speech and freedom of press does not apply to libel. Even so, the question of what is libelous must be decided on by legal action that brings the issue before a court of law.
The protections of the First Amendment also do not apply in instances of defamation. Defamation and libel are closely related. Both involve the issuing of false statements that injure the reputation of the person being defamed or libeled. However, defamation, like libel, is not easy to prove and must usually be defined by the injured party taking legal action.
The First Amendment also offers no protection in cases involving obscenity. Obscenity usually refers to words or actions that violate the community standards of decency. This usually involves some sort of pornography. Opinions differ on what may be defined as obscene or pornographic. Any efforts to ban books, movies, or plays on grounds of obscenity or pornography are generally unsuccessful. Most efforts end up in courts, which must determine the issues involved.
There is no First Amendment protection for sedition. Sedition involves written or spoken statements violating national security or aiding an enemy in time of war. Such activities have no First Amendment protection.
Amendment Two – Right to Bear Arms
The Second Amendment states:
“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
This amendment is often cited today by those who oppose gun control laws. The argument to “bear arms” is guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Those who favor gun control laws believe that the right to bear arms had a different meaning in 1788 than it has today, and that the statement refers to arms only in relation to the armed forces, or military, and not to private individuals.
Amendment Three – Housing of Soldiers
The Third Amendment deals with the lodging of soldiers in private homes and states:
“No soldier shall, in time of peace, be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
The American colonists were angry when British soldiers were housed in private homes without the permission of the owners. The Third Amendment was intended to make certain that did not happen again in the United States. Today this may not be an issue, but it remains a part of the Bill of Rights.
Amendment Four – Search and Arrest Warrants
The Fourth Amendment protects two very important civil and legal rights of the American people. It does this by forbidding improper searches and the illegal seizure of personal papers and letters, The Fourth Amendment states:
“The right of the people to be secure in their person, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but, upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The first part deals with the rights of people to be protected against police and government officials searching them in an unreasonable manner. During colonial times the British had used Writs of Assistance to search colonial ships, warehouses, and homes. The Writs of Assistance were blanket warrants. They allowed British officials to search anywhere, at any time, for any items that might establish the guilt of the subject.
The British argued that no innocent person needed to fear being searched. This idea was rejected by the colonists. They reasoned that no one should be searched unless there was a strong reason to suspect that he or she was guilty of some crime. The act of searching a person or home lends suspicion and damages a person’s reputation, even if nothing is found. Additionally, blanket searches often lead to possible “planting” of fake evidence.
The second part of the amendment requires that a search warrant must be presented when a search is to be made. Those seeking such warrants must have a “probable cause” for the search, and they must swear that they have such a cause. Finally, the search warrant, when issued, must describe what is being searched and what the searchers are looking for in their search.
The United States is a nation of law. Even those who are known criminals are guaranteed their rights. Protection against unfair and unreasonable searches and seizures of evidence is one of those rights.
Lesson 7 Review
Directions: The following are “headlines” from a newspaper. Give your opinion of the events or “story” behind the “headline.”
Explain whether these situations violated the First – Fourth Amendments – which one, and why or why not.A strong paragraph includes a minimum of three to five details from the lesson and is written in Academic English form. For more information on Academic English form, refer to the documents in the Orientation.
1. CITY REFUSES PERMIT FOR PRO-NAZI GROUP TO HOLD MEETING
2. CLERK AT CITY HALL FIRED FOR NOT BELIEVING IN GOD
3. NEWSPAPER SAYS MAYOR IS A CROOK, LIAR, AND DRUNKARD
4. HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS NOT ALLOWED TO ATTEND A PUBLIC MEETING ON ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES
5. WOMEN ARRESTED AFTER STOLEN JEWELRY FOUND IN CAR