The United States Constitution, originally drafted by the founding fathers in 1787, was the foundation for the world’s first true democracy. As profoundly visionary as the document was, it wasn’t perfect. While it defined what the democratically elected government was authorized to do, it did not define what it wasn’t authorized to do.
Bill of Rights
Having toiled under the tyranny of British rule and fought a war to be freed from it, the American people wanted their newly acquired rights of freedom of speech, press and religion etched in stone in the Constitution. After four years of wrangling over the issue, the Bill of Rights was passed and the Constitution finally ratified. Its centerpiece was the First Amendment.
Freedom of speech
The term freedom of speech is self-defining. While there are limits, yelling fire in a crowded theater, for instance, the Supreme Court has consistently guarded the right of individuals to speak freely. Freedom of the press is very similar to freedom of speech except that it is written speech. The First Amendment protects the press from government censorship. However, it does not grant any rights to the media that aren’t available to the public in general.
Freedom of religion
What are known as the twin clauses of the First Amendment guarantee freedom of religion. The establishment clause address the separation of church and state. It essentially prohibits the government from enacting legislation that imposes religion on its citizens and from favoring one religion over another. The free exercise clause guarantees the right of every individual to freely practice the religion of his choosing, or to practice no religion at all, without government interference.
Freedom of assembly and petition
Freedom of assembly means people have the right to gather together in a public place and make their views known as long as they do so in a nonviolent way. Freedom of petition provides the right to ask government for a redress of grievances either by challenging existing statutes in a court of law or by collecting signatures to force legislative bodies to take action.
For more than a century after the ratification of the Constitution, the freedoms it guaranteed existed, for the most part, only on paper. Congress made laws, and the executive branch enforced them. In the 20th century, however, citizens began to challenge laws in court when they felt their rights were being violated. The concept of judicial precedent, in which a court may base its ruling on the ruling of a previous court when the facts in the case are similar, piled layers of interpretation on the First Amendment.
While these layers added meat to the original words, the issue of judicial interpretation is a contentious one. Whether the First Amendment, as right-leaning Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia believes, should be viewed as an unchanging document that can be interpreted only in the context of the original meaning or intent of the framers, or, as left-leaning President Barack Obama believes, as a document that needs to be interpreted in the context of the changing norms and understandings of an evolving society, continues to be the subject of much debate.