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Free speech: Some First Amendment landmarks

The First Amendment right to free speech is the most widely understood US constitutional provision.

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The First Amendment guarantees of free speech, press, religion, and assembly may be the constitutional provision most widely understood by Americans. Adopted in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights, it reads:

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.
First Amendment protections have been subject to challenges, particularly in regard to hate speech, wartime security, and the practice of religion as it intersects with the state.

Some landmarks in these areas include:


1798: The Alien and Sedition Act made it a crime to disparage or ridicule government officials with the intent to undercut public support for the government.
1918: The Sedition Act made it illegal to criticize the government or the US effort in World War I.
1950s: The general trend toward widening First Amendment rights hit serious shoals in this period when US-Soviet tensions were running high. The “Red Scare” – fears of the spread of Communism in the United States – propelled Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities to identify and designate various loyalties and organizations as subversive.
1971: The Supreme Court upheld the publication of the Pentagon Papers (a top-secret Defense Department report on Vietnam), ruling that prior restraints against speech or publication violate the First Amendment except in instances where the government can show an imminent threat to national security.


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