Home > Free Speech, Rights > Free Speech Week 2013: First amendment changed freedom of speech forever

Free Speech Week 2013: First amendment changed freedom of speech forever

October 23, 2013
US Bill of Rights

US Bill of Rights

The US Bill of Rights is an amazing document. These first ten amendments to the US Constitution  provided protection for certain natural-born rights from government control. Of particular interest during Free Speech Week 2013 is the protection provided to freedom of speech from government intervention. Here is the text of the first amendment:

1st Amendment – 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.

To read the free speech section cleanly it can also be broken out as such:

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press

This sentence may seem small in size, yet its actual meaning is historically quite powerful. Before the Bill of Rights there were no protections allowed by any government for the speech of all citizens. Traditionally free speech protections were reserved for the rich and powerful. In fact many point to the English Bill of Rights as a starting point for the US Bill of rights, including free speech. Here is the portion of the English Bill of Rights in question:

English Bill of Rights

English Bill of Rights

That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament;

While it is true many concepts were taken from the English Bill of Rights to create the US Bill of Rights, I cannot go so far as to say freedom of speech is one of those concepts. I will respectfully disagree with some people who make this connection. Like all speech protections of the past, this clause did not protect speech for all citizens. Instead it protected the speech of Parliamentary members (an important protection, but still only for a special class). Actually this clause was used by our founding fathers. Here is Article I, Section 6, Clause 1, of the U.S. Constitution (aka the Debate Clause):

The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States. They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.

If you read the bolded portion of I posted above you will see the US Constitution includes the special speech protections for legislators that the English Bill of Rights contained (almost word for word). When creating the US Constitution our founding fathers determined it was important for legislators to have protection from the other branches of government.

But that special protection did no good for the average citizen. To protect the free speech rights of all American citizens the first amendment contained “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. Never  before in history had any government even dreamed to allow the citizenry such power. Free speech for all meant the average person could criticize those doing the governing. Luckily this important amendment was ratified. Without the freedom of speech protections from the first amendment it is unlikely our culture would have grown into the information society it has become. Even today, 200 years after being ratified, there are very few countries that have the same protection offered by the First Amendment. Each person in America should proudly use their freedom of speech in whichever way they feel comfortable with. Historically it is truly odd for the average person to have such power.

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