Skip to main content

First Amendment

This timeline addresses freedom of speech and the press, freedom of assembly and the right to petition the government, and freedom of religion.

1791First Amendment Is Ratified

The First Amendment is ratified when Virginia becomes the 11th state to approve the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The amendment, drafted primarily by James Madison, guarantees basic freedoms for citizens: freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.

1791Bill Of Rights Ratified

By Dec. 15, three-fourths of the states ratify the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. The amendments are meant to secure individual liberties and to maintain the balance of power between the federal government and the states. The 10th Amendment states that powers not delegated to the federal government belong to the states. Although not specified in the 10th Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in years to come that laws affecting family relations, commerce within a state’s borders, and local law enforcement fall within state authority.

1802Jefferson Writes Of Church-State Separation

In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, President Thomas Jefferson writes that the First Amendment has built “a wall of separation between Church and State” to counter church fears that the U.S. government would establish a state religion.

1836Efforts To Stifle Debate About Slavery Unsuccessful

As abolitionists develop the tactic of submitting many antislavery petitions to Congress, proslavery members of the U.S. House of Representatives adopt “gag” rules that bar such petitions from being introduced and debated. In 1844, former President John Quincy Adams, then a representative from Massachusetts, leads the effort to repeal these rules.

1859‘On Liberty’ Is Published

British philosopher John Stuart Mill publishes the essay On Liberty, arguing that only through the free exchange of ideas, even offensive ones or ones held by a minority of individuals, can society find “truth.”

1864Lincoln Orders Two Newspapers Shut

President Abraham Lincoln orders Union Gen. John Dix to stop publication of the New York Journal of Commerce and the New York World after they publish a forged presidential proclamation calling for another military draft. The editors also are arrested. After the authors of the forgery are arrested, the newspapers are allowed to resume publication.

1875Church-State Amendment Proposed

Rep. James Blaine (R., Maine) proposes an amendment to the Constitution that builds upon the First Amendment and explicitly forbids the use of public funds to support religious activities, including parochial schools. Although the amendment fails in Congress, legislation will later pass requiring states to amend their constitutions to include some version of the Blaine Amendment as a condition of statehood. Other states voluntarily add similar amendments to their constitutions.

1907Court Refuses To Review Publisher’s Conviction

In Patterson v. Colorado, the U.S. Supreme Court says it does not have jurisdiction to review the criminal contempt conviction of U.S. Sen. Thomas Patterson, who published articles and a cartoon critical of the state Supreme Court. The Court says that the rights of free speech and free press protect only against prior restraint and do not prevent “subsequent punishment.”

1917Congress Passes Espionage Act Of 1917

With World War I being fought, President Woodrow Wilson proposes the Espionage Act of 1917 to protect the country from internal warfare propaganda. Congress passes the act, which makes it a crime to intentionally interfere with military forces, recruiting or enlistment or “cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States.” Punishment is a maximum fine of $10,000, a maximum jail term of 20 years, or both. The act also bans any mailings urging treason.

1918Sedition Act Of 1918 Punishes Critics Of WWI

An amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act is passed by Congress. It goes much further than its predecessor, imposing severe criminal penalties on all forms of expression that are critical of the government, its symbols, or its mobilization of resources for World War I. Ultimately, about 900 people will be convicted under the law. Hundreds of noncitizens will be deported without a trial; 249 of them, including anarchist Emma Goldman, will be sent to the Soviet Union.

1919‘Clear And Present Danger’ Exception Established

In Schenck v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, upholds the conviction of Socialist Charles Schenck for conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act by attempting to distribute thousands of antiwar leaflets to U.S. servicemen. While acknowledging that the First Amendment under normal circumstances might protect Schenck’s activities, the Court holds that in special circumstances, such as wartime, speech that poses a “clear and present danger” can be restricted. The Court likens the ideas expressed in Schenck’s leaflets to “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

A few days later, in another opinion by Holmes, the Court will uphold Socialist Eugene V. Debs’ conviction, finding that his speech also poses a “clear and present danger” of undermining war recruitment and is not protected by the First Amendment.

1919‘Marketplace Of Ideas’ Concept Defined

In his dissent from the majority opinion in Abrams v. United States (upholding the Espionage Act convictions of a group of antiwar activists), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes coins his famous “marketplace of ideas” phrase to explain the value of freedom of speech. He said that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas … the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

Over the years, Holmes’ “marketplace” concept, and the idea that more is better when it comes to competing ideas, has been a consistent theme in First Amendment cases.

1925Court: Parents Can Choose Children’s School

In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court invalidates an Oregon law that requires parents to send their children to public schools. The Court rules that parents have the constitutional right, under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, to direct their children’s educational as well as moral development, which includes sending their children to a school of their choice – even a private religious one.

1925Court: First Amendment Applies To States’ Laws

In Gitlow v. New York, the U.S. Supreme Court concludes that the free speech clause of the First Amendment applies not just to laws passed by Congress, but also to those passed by the states.

1926Mencken Arrested For ‘Indecent Literature’

H.L. Mencken is arrested in Boston for distributing copies of his American Mercury magazine, which contains a story with a prostitute as a central character. Censorship groups in Boston say the magazine is obscene and order Mencken’s arrest for selling “indecent literature.”

1927Criminal Syndicalism Law Constitutional

In Whitney v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that California’s criminal syndicalism law is constitutional. A member of the state’s Communist Labor Party was prosecuted under the law, which barred advocating, teaching or aiding the commission of a crime, including “terrorism” as a way to achieve change in industrial ownership or political change. The Court says that freedom of speech is not an absolute right.

1930Public Funds May Benefit Children At Private Schools

In Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Louisiana law permitting state funds to be used by both public and private schools, including religious schools, to buy books. The Court finds that because it is the schoolchildren, and not the schools, who benefit from the law, the law does not establish religion and is constitutional.

1931Court: Symbolic Expression Of Ideas Also Protected

In Stromberg v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates the state court conviction of a 19-year-old member of the Young Communist League for displaying a red flag as “an emblem of opposition to the United States government.” The Court rules that the woman’s nonverbal, symbolic expression of her antigovernment opinions is protected just as are any words that she might write or speak to express those opinions.

1931Prior Restraint Ruled Unconstitutional

Near v. Minnesota is the first U.S. Supreme Court decision to invoke the First Amendment’s press clause. A Minnesota law prohibited the publication of “malicious, scandalous, and defamatory” newspapers. It was aimed at the Saturday Press, which had run a series of articles about corrupt practices by local politicians and business leaders. The justices rule that prior restraints against publication violate the First Amendment, meaning that once the press possesses information that it deems newsworthy, the government can seldom prevent its publication. The Court also says the protection is not absolute, suggesting that information during wartime or obscenity or incitement to acts of violence may be restricted.

1936Court: Newspaper Circulation Tax Unconstitutional

In Grosjean v. American Press Co., the U.S. Supreme Court decides that governments may not impose taxes on a newspaper’s circulation. The Court says such a tax is unconstitutional because “it is seen to be a deliberate and calculated device … to limit the circulation of information to which the public is entitled.”

1937Court: First Amendment Protects ‘Peaceable Assembly’

In De Jonge v. Oregon, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of Dirk De Jonge for participating in a Communist Party political meeting, holding that “peaceable assembly for lawful discussion cannot be made a crime.” That right, the Court finds, is not dependent upon whether one agrees with the ideas being discussed by the people assembled.

1940Ban On Religious Solicitation Struck Down

In Cantwell v. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that two Jehovah Witnesses’ rights of free speech and free exercise of religion were violated when they were arrested for proselytizing in a Catholic neighborhood. The Court says the solicitation law, which allows a state official to refuse a permit based on religious grounds, is unconstitutional. The Court also overturns a breach of peace conviction, saying the pair’s message was protected religious speech. The case is the first to extend the free exercise of religion clause to the states and to establish the ‘time, manner and place’ rule, which says the state can regulate the free exercise right to ensure it is practiced in a reasonable time, manner and place.

1942‘Fighting Words’ Exception Established

In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the conviction of a Jehovah’s Witness who had called a police officer a “damned fascist.” The Court rules that there are certain words that “by their very utterance inflict injury” and are of “such slight social value” that they are not welcome in the marketplace of ideas. This category of speech, named “fighting words” by the Court, is not protected by the First Amendment. Consequently, the speaker may be prosecuted.

1943Court: Required Flag Salute Violates First Amendment

In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the U.S. Supreme Court overrules its decision in Minersville School District v. Gobitis and decides that a West Virginia law requiring students to salute the American flag violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment. “Compulsory unification of opinion,” the Court says, is “antithetical to First Amendment values.”

1947State May Cover Transportation To Parochial Schools

In Everson v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a state law that reimburses parents for the transportation costs of sending their children to private schools, including parochial schools. As in Cochran v. Louisiana State Board of Education, the Court rules that the law does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment because students and parents benefit, not the schools or the religious institutions.

1947Hatch Act Upheld; Dissent Says It Violates 17th Amendment

In United Public Workers v. Mitchell, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the Hatch Act, a federal law that prohibits federal employees from participating in many electoral activities does not violate the First Amendment. In a strong dissent, Justice Hugo Black argues that the law muzzles several million citizens and threatens popular government, because it deprives citizens of the right to participate in the political process.

Such limitations, he argues, would be inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition. Moreover, Black finds that the Hatch Act would violate, or come dangerously close to violating, Article I and the 17th Amendment, which protect the right of the people to vote for their representatives in the House and Senate and to have their votes counted.

1948No Religious Instruction In Public Schools Allowed

In Illinois, the Champaign Council on Religious Education, composed of Jewish, Catholic and Protestant groups, offers voluntary religious instruction to students in local public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court rules in McCollum v. Board of Education District that such use of school buildings is unconstitutional because it is “a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups and to spread the faith,” and therefore violated the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment.

1949Scope Of ‘Fighting Words’ Doctrine Limited

In Terminiello v. Chicago, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of Father Arthur Terminiello for disturbing the peace. He was convicted after giving a controversial speech that criticized various racial and political groups. Several disturbances by protesters occurred after the speech. The Court says “fighting words” can be restricted only when they are “likely to produce a clear and present danger.” Justice William O. Douglas writes that free speech may “best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

1952Public Schools May Accommodate Religious Instruction

In Zorach v. Clauson, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that permitting public school students to leave campus during the day for privately taught religious instruction does not violate the establishment clause. Such “release time” programs do not endorse religion, they accommodate it, and thus strike the proper balance between the free exercise clause and the establishment clause, the Court finds. The Court distinguishes between the policy struck down in McCollum v. Board of Education in which school space was used, and this case, in which schools merely adjust their schedules.

1952Justices Uphold Group Libel Law

In Beauharnais v. Illinois, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the conviction of a white supremacist for passing out leaflets that characterized African Americans as dangerous criminals. The “group libel” law under which Joseph Beauharnais was prosecuted makes it a crime to make false statements about people of a particular “race, color, creed or religion” for no other reason than to harm that group. The Court rules that libel against groups, like libel against individuals, has no place in the marketplace of ideas.

1957Obscenity Exception To First Amendment Established

In Roth v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court decides that it is not a violation of the First Amendment for the government to regulate, or even criminalize, speech that is “obscene,” because, just like libel and “fighting words,” obscene speech is “utterly without redeeming social importance.” The Court says that in defining obscenity, the government must consider “contemporary community standards.” What was “obscene” 50 years ago may not be in today’s society.

1958Court Protects ‘Free Association’ In NAACP Case

In NAACP v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that when Alabama state officials demanded that the NAACP hand over its membership list, the members’ right of “free association” was violated. Although no such right is specifically included in the First Amendment, the Court says it is a necessary extension of the rights to free speech and free assembly: “It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the ‘liberty’ assured by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech.”

1959No Protection From Congressional Inquiry

The U.S. Supreme Court finds professor Lloyd Barenblatt’s First Amendment rights were not violated when he was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about his religious and political beliefs before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In Barenblatt v. United States, the Court says that such questions are legitimate when the investigation’s goal is to “aid the legislative process” and to protect important government interests.

1961Symbolic Speech Of Civil Rights Protesters Protected

In Garner v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the convictions of 16 African American demonstrators for disturbing the peace in three lunch counter sit-ins at all-white restaurants in Baton Rouge, La., to protest segregation. The cases were consolidated under Garner v. Louisiana. Referring to earlier court opinions protecting symbolic speech, Justice John Harlan explains that a sit-in demonstration “is as much a part of the free trade of ideas as is verbal expression.”

1962Prayer Not Allowed In Public Schools

New York State’s Board of Regents drafted a nondenominational prayer for students to recite voluntarily at the beginning of each school day: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg Thy blessings upon us, our teachers, and our country.”

Ruling in Engel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court rejects the notion that the prayer’s lack of reference to any specific religion exempts it from the First Amendment’s prohibition against establishing a religion. Any state-sanctioned prayer, the Court argues, is an unconstitutional recognition of religion.

1963Prayer Rejected; Secular Study of Religion Allowed

In Abington School District v. Schempp, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a Pennsylvania law violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment by requiring schoolchildren to begin the day by reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The Court rules that even though children may be exempt from recitation at a parent’s request, the public school nevertheless has endorsed religion. The Court notes, however, that the prohibition on prayer is not a ban on secular instruction in religion, an area of study that can enhance a student’s education.

1963Worker May Keep Sabbath And Jobless Benefits

In Sherbert v. Verner, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that it is a violation of the free exercise clause to deny unemployment benefits to a Seventh-day Adventist who was fired for refusing to work on Saturday, her Sabbath, and then rejected the offer of a new job that would have required the same. By making the employee choose between unemployment benefits and observing her faith, the Court finds that the state infringed upon the employee’s free exercise of religion.

1966Loyalty Oath Is Struck Down

In Elfbrandt v. Russell, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates an Arizona law requiring state employees to take a loyalty oath. Anyone who took the oath and then became a member of the Communist Party or any other group that advocated the violent overthrow of the government could be prosecuted for perjury and fired. The Court says the law violates the due process clause by infringing on the right of free association. The Court holds that the law is too broad by punishing a person who joins a group that has both legal and illegal purposes but does not subscribe to the illegal purpose.

1966Smith Act Is Found Constitutional

In Dennis v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the convictions of 12 Communist Party leaders who were convicted under the Smith Act of 1940, formally known as the Alien Registration Act. The law makes it illegal to teach or advocate the overthrow or destruction of the U.S. government, or publish any materials or organize a group that endorses such action. The majority writes that the “existence of the conspiracy” creates “a clear and present danger.”

1966Freedom Of Information Act Passes

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), requiring that government records be made available to the public and press upon request. Exceptions are made for documents relating to national security, confidential financial data, and law enforcement. Johnson notes “a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the nation permits. No one should be able to pull curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.”

1968Limits Placed On Symbolic Speech Right

In United States v. O’Brien, the U.S. Supreme Court lets stand the conviction of an activist who burned his draft card to protest the Vietnam War. Although the Court admits that the law against destroying a draft card does limit speech, it rules that the limit is acceptable because it serves an important government interest (i.e., the smooth operation of the draft during wartime) and is “content-neutral,” meaning that it is not meant to punish any particular point of view or opinion.

1968Teacher’s Free Speech Right Upheld

The U.S. Supreme Court decides that a public school teacher’s free speech right was violated when he was fired for writing a letter to the newspaper criticizing how money was divided between athletics and academics. The justices say in Pickering v. Board of Education that public school teachers are entitled to some First Amendment protection and that the teacher was speaking out more as a citizen than as a public employee when he wrote the letter.

1968State May Not Prohibit Lessons In Evolution

In Epperson v. Arkansas, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a state law that forbids public school teachers from presenting lessons on evolution. The Court rules that the law results from the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, who see evolutionary theories as contradictory to the biblical account of creation. The use of state power to ban the teaching of material objectionable to a particular sect amounts to an unconstitutional establishment of religion, the Court holds.

1969Students’ Right To Symbolic Speech Upheld

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the school board was wrong to suspend three students who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The Court finds that the students’ passive protest posed no risk of disrupting school activities. “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the Court’s opinion says.

1969Private Ownership Of Obscene Material Protected

In Stanley v. Georgia, the U.S. Supreme Court finds unconstitutional a Georgia obscenity law that prohibits the possession of such material. The Court rules that the Constitution “protects the right to receive information and ideas, regardless of their social worth, and to be generally free from governmental intrusions into one’s privacy and control of one’s thoughts.”

1969Advocacy Of Violence Is Protected Speech Except In Rare Circumstances

In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader under an Ohio law prohibiting speech that calls for crime or violence as a way of winning political change. The Court holds that unless the speaker incites his listeners to “imminent lawless action,” the speech is protected by the First Amendment.

1969Justices Uphold FCC’s Fairness Doctrine

Because of the limits of the broadcast spectrum, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that the government may require radio and TV broadcasters to present balanced discussions of public issues on the airwaves. In Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC, the Court upholds the Federal Communications Commission’s fairness doctrine and “personal attack” rule – the right of a person criticized on a broadcast station to respond to the criticism over the same airwaves – saying they do not violate the right to free speech.

1970Houses Of Worship May Be Tax-Exempt

In Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that New York City does not violate the establishment clause by exempting houses of worship from property taxes. The benefit to churches is the same as that received by nonprofit organizations and quasi-public corporations, including hospitals, libraries, and historical and patriotic groups, the Court says. The exemption policy recognizes such groups as “beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life,” the Court says.

1971Antiwar Expression Is Ruled Protected Speech

In Cohen v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of a man convicted of disturbing the peace for wearing a jacket bearing a vulgarism about the draft. The Court concludes that the expression, however crude, did not pose enough of a risk of inciting disobedience to override his First Amendment right to express his opposition to the Vietnam War.

1971State May Not Aid Non-Public Schools

In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates Pennsylvania and Rhode Island laws that provide financial assistance to private and parochial schools. Pennsylvania reimburses schools for teacher salaries, textbooks and other instructional material in secular subjects. Rhode Island supplements teacher salaries. The Court outlines what will be known as the “Lemon test” to determine violation of the establishment clause, asking: Is the law’s purpose nonsecular? Does it have the primary effect of promoting a set of religious beliefs? Does it have “excessive government entanglement” with religion?

1971Newspapers Win Pentagon Papers Case

The New York Times and the Washington Post obtain secret Defense Department documents that detail U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the years leading up to the Vietnam War. Citing national security, the U.S. government gets temporary restraining orders to halt publication of the documents, known as the Pentagon Papers. But, acting with unusual haste, the U.S. Supreme Court finds in New York Times v. United States that prior restraint on the documents’ publication violates the First Amendment. National security concerns are too speculative to overcome the “heavy presumption” in favor of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press, the Court says.

1972Compulsory School Attendance Law Overturned

In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a state law requiring students to attend school until age 16 violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. In a challenge by three Amish families whose faith led them to withdraw their children from school after the eighth grade, the Court finds that the state interest in universal education is secondary to the Amish interest in raising children in the manner dictated by their religion.

1972Court: No Reporter’s Privilege Before Grand Juries

Branzburg v. Hayes is a landmark decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court rejects First Amendment protection for reporters called before a grand jury to reveal confidential information or sources. Reporters argued that if they were forced to identify their sources, their informants would be reluctant to provide information in the future. The Court decides reporters are obliged to cooperate with grand juries just as average citizens are. The justices do allow a small exception for grand jury investigations that are not conducted or initiated in good faith.

1973Court: States Can Regulate Obscene Exhibits

In Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Georgia injunction against the showing of allegedly obscene films at an adult movie theater that allowed only patrons at least 21 years old. The Court finds that “legitimate state interests,” such as preserving quality of life and public safety, are at stake in regulating commercialized obscenity even if the exhibits are limited to consenting adults.

1973Definition Of Obscenity Is Clarified

In Miller v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court establishes a new definition of obscenity, setting out a three-part test for judging whether material is obscene: (a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

1973Aid To Non-Public Schools, Students Not Allowed

In Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates a New York law that gives facility-maintenance grants to non-public schools with a high concentration of low-income students, as well as tuition reimbursement and tax credits to low-income students at such schools. The Court finds that the law has the “primary effect” of promoting religion, and that it entangles government and religion by helping religious schools stay in business and encouraging parents to send their children to them.

1974Equal Space Law For Candidates Struck Down

In Miami Herald v. Tornillo, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a Florida law requiring newspapers to give equal space to candidates running for office. The justices say a candidate is not entitled to equal space to reply to a newspaper’s attack. Compulsory publication, the court says, intrudes on the right of newspaper editors to decide what they want to publish.

1975Court Allows Publication Of Sex-Crime Victim’s Name

In Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a state cannot prevent a newspaper from publishing the name of a rape victim in a criminal case when the name already was included in a court document available to the public.

1976Money Spent In Political Campaigns Considered Speech

When Congress tries to limit expenditures in political campaigns, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Buckley v. Valeo, invalidates provisions that restrict candidates’ ability to spend their own money on a campaign, limit campaign expenditures by an outside group, and limit total campaign spending. The Court compares spending restrictions with restrictions on “political speech.” The majority reasons that discussion of public issues and political candidates are integral to the U.S. political system under the Constitution. The Court says government-imposed limits on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication reduces “the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.”

1976Justices Protect Commercial Speech

In Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a state law that forbids pharmacists from including the prices of prescription drugs in their ads because it is unprofessional conduct. Although such information does not convey an idea other than proposing that a purchase be made, the Court finds that commercial speech enjoys the same First Amendment protection as noncommercial speech.

1976Justices Say Gag Orders On Press Are Prior Restraint

Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart pits the right of a free press against the right to a fair trial. In a multiple-murder case in Nebraska, a local judge imposed a gag order to prevent news coverage that might make it difficult to seat an impartial jury. However, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that judges cannot impose gag orders on reporters covering a criminal trial because they are a form of prior restraint. However, the justices also note that there may be cases in which a gag order might be justified to protect the defendant’s rights.

1977Court Allows Publication Of Juvenile’s Identity

In Oklahoma Publishing Company v. District Court, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that when a newspaper obtains the name and photograph of a juvenile involved in a juvenile court proceeding, it is unconstitutional to prevent publication of the information, even though the juvenile has a right to confidentiality in such proceedings. A similar ruling will be made by the court two years later, in Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Company, when the Court finds that a newspaper’s First Amendment right takes precedence over a juvenile’s right to anonymity.

1977Publication Of Juvenile’s Name, Photograph Is Upheld

In the case Oklahoma Publishing Company v. District Court, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that when a newspaper obtains a name and photograph of a juvenile involved in a juvenile court proceeding, it is an unconstitutional restriction on the press to prevent publication of that information, even though the juvenile has a right to confidentiality in such proceedings. A similar ruling is made two years later, in Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Company, when the Court finds that a newspaper’s First Amendment right must take precedence over a juvenile’s right to anonymity.

1978Justices Allow Search Warrants For Newsrooms

In Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the First Amendment does not protect the press and its newsrooms from search warrants. Police in Palo Alto, Calif., had obtained a warrant to search the newsroom of the student newspaper at Stanford University. Police believed the newspaper had photos of a violent clash between protesters and police and were trying to identify the assailants.

1978FCC Can Regulate Indecent Speech

The U.S. Supreme Court, in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, allows the Federal Communications Commission to regulate indecent speech broadcast over the air. The Court says the FCC can channel broadcasts that contain indecent language to late-night hours, when children are less likely to be listening.

1979Court: No Shield On Editorial Process Inquiries

In Herbert v. Lando, the U.S. Supreme Court decides that the press clause in the First Amendment does not include a privilege that would empower a journalist to decline to testify about editorial decision-making in civil discovery. The Court says that protecting the editorial process from inquiry would add to the already substantial burden of proving actual malice.

1980Court Establishes Commercial Speech Test

In Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court decides that a state ban on promotional advertising by the electric utility is unconstitutional. The ruling sets up a four-part test to decide when commercial speech can or cannot be regulated: (1) It must not be misleading or involve illegal activity (2) The government interest advanced by the regulation must be significant (3) The regulation must directly advance the government interest (4) The regulation must be limited to serving the asserted government interest.

1980Justices Uphold Right To Attend Criminal Trials

In Richmond Newspapers v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court asserts that the public and the press have a First Amendment right to observe criminal trials. The justices say this right is not absolute, but can be restricted only if the judge decides there are no other means to protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The other means include a change of venue, jury sequestration, extensive questioning of potential jurors, trial postponement, emphatic jury instructions, and gag orders on trial participants. The Court says open trials help maintain public confidence in the justice system. In 1984, the Court extends its ruling to jury selection. In Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of California, the justices rule that the right to attend criminal trials includes the right to attend jury selection.

1980Posting Of Ten Commandments Unconstitutional

In Stone v. Graham, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a Kentucky law requiring that the Ten Commandments be posted in every public school classroom. The Court finds that the law fails the first part of the test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, violating the establishment clause. The requirement has “no secular legislative purpose” and is “plainly religious in nature,” the decision says.

1982School Board Cannot Ban Library Books

In Board of Education v. Pico, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a school board’s decision to remove books from the school library based simply on their content violates the First Amendment’s free speech right. The Court says the First Amendment protects the right to receive information and ideas. The justices allow that books that are “pervasively vulgar” or educationally unsuitable can be removed.

1982Justices Rule Child Porn Not Protected

In New York v. Ferber, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that the First Amendment does not protect child pornography. Child pornography joins certain categories of speech – libel, “fighting words,” words that present a “clear and present danger” of violence, and obscene material – that are considered to have such negative consequences that it is acceptable for the government to restrict them.

1983Public Employees’ Free Speech Right Defined

In Connick v. Myers, a landmark free-speech ruling for public employees, the U.S. Supreme Court says that an assistant district attorney’s free speech right was not violated when she was fired for distributing a questionnaire about internal office practices to fellow prosecutors. At least one of Myers’ questions related to a matter of public concern: whether assistant prosecutors felt pressured to work in political campaigns. But, relying on its 1968 Pickering ruling, the Court decides that the employer’s interest in a disruption-free workplace outweighs the employee’s right to comment on an issue of public concern.

1983States Can Give Tax Credits For Education Expenses, Including Religious Schools

In Mueller v. Allen, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Minnesota law that offers a tax credit to families for their children’s education expenses, including tuition, textbooks and transportation. Since many of the families were taking the tax credit for expenses related to religious education, advocates challenged the law as a violation of the First Amendment’s mandate to separate church and state. The Court says that because the credit is made available to any family for educational expenses and not specifically targeted to those families sending their children to private, religious schools, there is no constitutional violation.

1983Legislative Sessions May Open With Prayer

In Marsh v. Chambers, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that it is not an establishment of religion for the Nebraska Legislature to open its sessions with a prayer by a chaplain who is paid from public funds. Because the practice of offering such prayers can be traced to the Continental Congress and to the First Congress, which framed the Bill of Rights, the Court finds that the purpose of the prayer is not to promote religion but to communicate certain shared values.

1983Media Access Limited In Grenada, Panama Invasions

Media access is banned for the first two days when the United States invades Grenada, its first military action since the Vietnam War. Journalists are kept 170 miles away on the island of Barbados. In response to complaints afterward, the Department of Defense National Media Pool is created. The Pentagon agrees to take in this group with the first wave of troops in future military actions. But in the 1989 invasion of Panama, the pool of reporters again is not allowed to cover early fighting.

1984City’s Nativity Scene Is Constitutional

In Lynch v. Donnelly, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a city’s Christmas display, which includes a nativity scene, does not violate the establishment clause because it also features non-religious decorations, such as a Santa Claus house. The Court concludes that the purpose of the display in Pawtucket, R.I., is secular, to celebrate the holiday generally and to depict its historical roots. The symbols pose no danger of establishing a state church, the Court finds.

1985Court: No Federal Funds For Parochial School’s Special Needs Students

In Aguilar v. Felton, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that a New York City program that uses federal funds to pay the salaries of public school teachers who teach low-income parochial school students with special needs violates the establishment clause. Although the program is not intended to promote religion, the Court finds that it results in the “excessive entanglement” of church and state and, therefore, is unconstitutional.

1986Court: Student’s Lewd Speech Not Protected

In Bethel School District v. Fraser, the U.S. Supreme Court decides that a high school senior’s free speech right was not violated when he was disciplined for making a lewd speech at an assembly. Previously, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the justices had said students do not “shed their constitutional rights” at the schoolhouse door. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger writes that schools can prohibit lewd speech because it is inconsistent with the “fundamental values of public school education.”

1986Court Rejects Conn. Law Restricting Party Primary Voters

In Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court looks at the constitutionality of a Connecticut law that requires voters in any political party primary to be registered members of that party. In 1984, the Connecticut Republican Party adopted a party rule that permits independent voters – registered voters not affiliated with any party – to vote in Republican primaries for federal and statewide offices. The party then challenged the Connecticut law in federal district court on the ground that it deprives the party of its right under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to enter into political association with individuals of its own choosing.

The Supreme Court finds that the law denies the party and its members of the right to freedom of association by limiting the number of registered voters whom the party may invite to participate in the “basic function” of selecting the party’s candidates. But the Court finds that the party rule does not violate the qualifications clause of the Constitution or the 17th Amendment. The clause and the amendment are not violated by the fact that the party rule establishes qualifications for voting in congressional elections that differ from the qualifications in elections for the state legislature.

1987‘Creation Science’ Requirement Struck Down


In Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a Louisiana law requiring that “creation science” be taught whenever evolution theory is taught and vice versa. The Court rules that the purpose of the law is religious, not secular: “The Louisiana Creationism Act advances a religious doctrine by requiring either the banishment of the theory of evolution from public school classrooms or the presentation of a religious viewpoint that rejects evolution in its entirety.”

1988Court Allows Censorship Of School Publications

In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that public school administrators can censor speech by students in publications (or activities) that are funded by the school – such as a yearbook, newspaper, play, or art exhibit – if they have a valid educational reason for doing so.

1988Parody Of Public Figures Ruled Constitutional

In Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, the U.S. Supreme Court applies the “actual malice” standard, saying the First Amendment protects the right to parody public figures, even if the parodies are “outrageous” or inflict severe emotional distress. The case arose from a parody of Campari liqueur ads in which celebrities spoke about their “first time” drinking the liqueur. Jerry Falwell – a well-known conservative minister and political commentator – was the subject of such a parody in Hustler, a sexually explicit magazine. The Court rules that public figures may not be awarded damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress without showing that false factual statements were made with “actual malice.”

1988Federal Grants May Aid Religious Groups For Secular Purpose

In Bowen v. Kendrick, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that federal grants may benefit religious groups as part of the Adolescent Family Life Act. The act’s purpose – to discourage premarital sex among teenagers – is a secular one. Furthermore, the act requires that potential recipients reveal the services they intend to provide and how they would provide them. That requirement enables the government to protect against the misuse of grants. Such oversight, however, does not create an “excessive entanglement” of church and state, the Court concludes.

1989Court: Flag Burning Is Protected Symbolic Speech

In Texas v. Johnson, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that burning an American flag is protected symbolic speech. Gregory Lee Johnson burned the flag outside Dallas City Hall to protest Reagan administration policies. The justices find that his actions fall into the category of expressive conduct and have a political nature. Speech cannot be prohibited simply because an audience takes offense to certain ideas, the Court says.

1989Court Distinguishes Between Holiday Displays

In County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, the U.S. Supreme Court rules on a nativity scene inside the courthouse and a menorah display outside a public building. The Court holds that the nativity scene is a county endorsement of Christian orthodoxy and is therefore an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The menorah display, however, includes a Christmas tree and a sign saluting liberty. Thus, it does not endorse a faith but merely recognizes that Christmas and Hanukkah are part of the winter holiday season. The Court says the display is constitutional.

1990Free Exercise Clause Protects Beliefs, Not Conduct

In Employment Division, Oregon Department of Human Resources v. Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court rules against two American Indians fired from their jobs at a private drug rehabilitation organization because they used the illegal hallucinogenic drug peyote in religious rituals. The State of Oregon denied their unemployment claims because they were fired for work-related “misconduct.” The Court says that it has never held that an individual’s religious beliefs excuse him or her from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct the government is free to regulate.

1990Flag Protection Act Ruled Unconstitutional

In U.S. v. Eichman, the U.S. Supreme Court decides that the 1989 Flag Protection Act is unconstitutional. The law provided penalties of up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for anyone who “knowingly mutilates, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon” any U.S. flag. The justices rule that the right to free expression supersedes protection of the flag as a national symbol. Justice William J. Brennan writes: “Punishing desecration of the flag dilutes the very freedom that makes this emblem so revered, and worth revering.”

1990Court Decides Opinion Not Always Protected

In Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., the U.S. Supreme Court decides that the First Amendment does not absolutely protect expressions of opinion from being found libelous. The Court makes a distinction between pure opinion and opinion that implies “an assertion of objective fact” that a plaintiff can prove is false. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist writes that “loose, figurative or hyperbolic language” is protected because it would “negate the impression” that the writer is making serious accusations based on fact.

1991Court: Newspapers Can Be Sued For Revealing Source

Cohen v. Cowles Media Co. establishes that newspapers are subject to liability for breach of contract claims when the identity of a confidential source is revealed. During a Minnesota election, political activist Dan Cohen gave reporters court documents about a candidate after they promised him anonymity. In subsequent articles, Cohen was identified as the source of the documents and fired. He sued the two newspapers, alleging fraudulent misrepresentation and breach of contract. The Court rejects the newspapers’ claim to the right to publish Cohen’s name, saying that in this context, the First Amendment offers no special protection.

1991Son Of Sam Law Is Struck Down

The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down New York’s Son of Sam law aimed at preventing convicted criminals or those accused of crimes from profiting from the sale of any work discussing their crimes. In Simon & Schuster Inc. v. New York State Crime Victims Board, the Court says the law violates the First Amendment because it singles out earnings from speech or writing.

1992Court Strikes Down Hate Crime Law

In R.A.V. v. The City of St. Paul, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the juvenile conviction of a 14-year-old white boy who burned a cross on the lawn of an African American family. The boy was prosecuted under a law prohibiting the placement of certain symbols that were “likely to arouse anger, alarm, or resentment on the basis of race, religion, or gender.” The Court finds that because the law punishes certain conduct only because of the ideas behind it – however offensive those ideas may be – it violates the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

1992Prayers At Graduation Violate Establishment Clause

In Lee v. Weisman, the U.S. Supreme Court finds unconstitutional a school district practice of inviting clergy to lead prayers at school graduations. Because attendance at the graduation ceremony is compulsory and because the “government is endorsing or promoting religion,” the Court holds that the district policy in Providence, R.I., violates the establishment clause.

1993Justices Allow Tougher Hate Crime Penalties

In Wisconsin v. Mitchell, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Wisconsin law that increases the penalty for assault if the offender purposely picks his victim “because of the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation or national origin or ancestry of that person.” The Court rules that the increased penalty does not violate the offender’s free speech rights because the Wisconsin law is aimed at the offender’s actions.

1993Deaf Parochial School Student Entitled To Interpreter

In Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that a public school district may provide a sign-language interpreter to a deaf student at a parochial school in the district. The parents had sued, contending that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act required the district to provide an interpreter and that the establishment clause did not ban such action. The court holds that because the benefit is a neutral one – in that it benefits the student, not the school or the religion – the policy does not violate the establishment clause.

1993Religious Freedom Restoration Act Passed

Congress passes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in response to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith, that rejected a longstanding principle that the government had to show a “compelling state interest” to interfere with religious practices. Two American Indians were fired as drug rehabilitation counselors and denied jobless benefits because they had ingested peyote, an illegal hallucinogenic drug, as part of their religious ceremonies. Under the new act, the government must follow strict standards before it can restrict the free exercise of religion.

1994Justices Uphold Buffer Zones At Abortion Clinics

In Madsen v. Women’s Health Center, the U.S. Supreme Court affirms a Florida court’s ruling that abortion protesters could not demonstrate within 36 feet of an abortion clinic, make loud noises within earshot of the clinic, or make loud noises within 300 feet of a clinic employee’s home. (These distance requirements are known as buffer zones.) Although the Court acknowledges that the ruling restricts the protesters’ speech, it finds the restrictions “necessary to serve a significant government interest” of providing needed health care.

1995Communications Decency Act Passed

As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress enacts the Communications Decency Act. The law is intended primarily to protect minors using the internet by criminalizing the placement of “obscene” and “patently offensive” material on the Web. The Communications Decency Act is almost immediately challenged by a diverse coalition of health-care providers, sex educators and pornographers on the grounds that the law violates the right to free speech.

1995College Must Finance Christian Student Newspaper

In Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a university policy against financing a Christian student newspaper. The university argued that as a public institution, it could not support an activity that “primarily promotes or manifests a particular belief in or about a deity or an ultimate reality.” To do so, the school said, would violate the establishment clause. However, the Court finds that once a public university commits to financing some student groups with certain viewpoints, it must give other groups the same opportunity to be heard.

1995Guidelines Issued On Religious Expression In Schools

At the direction of President Bill Clinton, Education Secretary Richard Riley issues federal guidelines on religious expression in public schools. The rules are meant to clarify existing laws and principles.

1996Child Pornography Prevention Act Passed

The Child Pornography Prevention Act expands the definition of child pornography – which, unlike most pornography involving adult subjects, does not enjoy First Amendment protection and can be criminalized – to include computer-generated depictions of children engaging in sexual activity. The act is challenged on First Amendment grounds by a variety of civil liberties and artistic groups.

1997‘Floating’ Buffer Zones At Clinics Struck Down

In Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a 15-foot buffer zone around an abortion clinic’s entrances and driveways, but strikes down a “floating” buffer zone that requires protesters to stay 15 feet away from all cars and patients as they enter and exit the clinic. The Court finds that, in contrast to the “fixed” buffer zone around the clinic, the “floating” zone risks silencing protesters: “Leafletting and commenting on matters of public concern are classic forms of speech that lie at the heart of the First Amendment, and speech in public areas is at its most protected on public sidewalks, a prototypical example of a traditional public forum.”

1997Equal Access For Military Recruiters Is Upheld

The Solomon Amendment requires institutions of higher education to provide military recruiters with the same access to students as other potential employers. If the school does not, it loses certain federal funds. Members of an association of law schools and law faculties wanted to restrict military recruiting because they objected to the military’s policy on LGBT+ recruits. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously says that the Solomon Amendment does not place an unconstitutional condition on the receipt of federal funds. The Court says the First Amendment does not prevent Congress from directly imposing the equal access requirement because the Solomon Amendment limits conduct, not speech.

1997Tutoring Ban On Public School Teachers Lifted

In Agostini v. Felton, the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the New York City policies put in place since the Aguilar v. Felton ruling and concludes that it is not “excessive entanglement” with religion for public school teachers to provide tutoring at parochial schools. Noting its recent decision in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, allowing for a publicly financed sign-language interpreter, the Court says there is no difference between an interpreter and a tutor. Entanglements between church and state do not necessarily have a positive or negative effect on religion, the Court finds.

1997Religious Freedom Restoration Act Is Voided

In Boerne v. Flores, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Congress passed the law in response to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Employment Division v. Smith, that abandoned the “compelling interest” principle in restricting religious practices. The law reinstated that principle, saying that government could not enforce laws that “substantially burden” religious observance without showing a “compelling interest” and without using the “least restrictive means available.” In Boerne, the Court asserts its judicial power and says Congress overstepped its authority.

1997Court Ruling Backs Free Speech On Internet

In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Supreme Court gives broad support to free speech on the Internet. The justices rule that the Communications Decency Act violates the First Amendment by criminalizing many kinds of material on the internet that are not obscene or offensive, such as medical information or artistic depictions of the human body.

1997Guidelines Issued On Religious Expression In Workplace

President Bill Clinton issues federal guidelines for religious expression in the workplace. Drawn up by a group of religious organizations, the rules address issues such as accommodating employees’ religious observances, discrimination, religious discussions and religious expression.

1998Court: Public TV Can Exclude Candidates

The U.S. Supreme Court decides that public television stations can exclude minor-party candidates from their debates as long as the decision is not based on the candidates’ views and the debates are not designed as public forums. The decision, in Arkansas Educational Television Commission v. Forbes, strikes down an appeals court ruling that a state-owned TV network is obliged under the First Amendment to allow any candidate who has qualified for the ballot access to a debate.

1998Decision Allowing Tuition Vouchers For Religious Education Stands

In 1993, the State of Wisconsin passed a school voucher law that offered low-income families up to $5,000 to attend any nonreligious school – public or private – in the city of Milwaukee. Over time, the program was expanded to include religious schools as well. That triggered a lawsuit in which, in 1998, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the school-voucher plan did not violate the First Amendment’s church-state separation clause. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, allowing the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling to stand.

1998Decency Test On Arts Grants Is Upheld

In National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the NEA, the government’s art-funding agency, can include “decency” standards among its criteria for awarding government grants for artists’ work without violating the First Amendment.

1999Florida Is First To Pass Statewide Tuition Voucher Law

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signs the first of several education measures that allow parents of students in “failing schools” to use state vouchers to pay for the education of their children in another school, if it has space. Students can choose a public, private, religious or nonreligious school.

Opponents challenge the plan as a violation of the constitutional concept of separation of church and state and provisions in the Florida Constitution that forbid public money from going to support any private school. In 2004, a midlevel state appellate court will decide that the plan violates the state constitution.


1999Giuliani Targets Publicly Funded Art

Infuriated by a planned exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that features an image of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatens to cut all city funding to the museum, evict the museum from its building, and remove the Board of Directors. A subsequent First Amendment lawsuit between the museum and the city will be settled the following year, with the city agreeing to pay an additional $5.8 million in repairs to the museum over the next two years.

2000Prayers Before Football Games Unconstitutional

In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a Santa Fe school policy of permitting students to lead prayers before football games – and broadcasting them over the stadium’s public address system – violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Similar to the situation in Lee v. Weisman, in which a school district invited clergy to deliver prayers before graduation, the Santa Fe practice amounts to students delivering a religious message on behalf of school officials, the Court finds.

2000Boy Scouts Can Bar LGBT+ Leaders

In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the U.S. Supreme Court says the Boy Scouts organization has the right to bar gay people from serving as troop leaders. Assistant scoutmaster James Dale contended that the Boy Scouts had violated a New Jersey statute banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in places of public accommodation. The justices said the law violated the Boy Scouts’ First Amendment right to expressive association.

2000Court Revisits ‘Floating’ Buffer Zones At Clinics

In Hill v. Colorado, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Colorado law that prohibits abortion protesters from “knowingly approaching” within eight feet of a person entering or exiting an abortion clinic. The Court says that, unlike the “floating” 15-foot buffer zone that it struck down in Schenck, the buffer zone in the Colorado law is small, so protesters are still able to exercise their free speech right.

2001Disclosure Of Illegally Intercepted Communications Protected

In the joined cases of United States v. Vopper and Bartnicki v. Vopper, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the media cannot be held liable for publishing or broadcasting the illegally intercepted contents of telephone calls or other electronic communications as long as the information is of “public concern” and the media did not participate in the illegal interception.

2002Use Of Vouchers For Religious Schools Upheld

In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that religious schools may participate in a voucher program in Cleveland in which the state provides financial assistance to parents who wish to send their children to a private school. The Court rules that the voucher proposal does not violate the establishment clause in the First Amendment because it has a neutral purpose – greater school choice for low-income families – and the vouchers go to the students’ parents, not to the schools, preventing “excessive entanglement.”

2003Law To Protect Children Passed

The Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today Act, or the PROTECT Act, includes numerous provisions intended to protect children from exploitation, kidnapping, and other crimes. It increases penalties for creating child pornography and strengthens penalties for “virtual” child pornography. Modern technology makes it easier for individuals to produce child pornography without involving “real” children. This law takes steps to prevent that practice. The law also encourages increased cooperation of internet service providers to report suspected child pornography.

2003Court Rules On Cross-Burning Law

In Virginia v. Black, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a law prohibiting cross burning could, in theory, be allowed under the First Amendment if it targets only cross burnings that are specifically “intended to intimidate.” Nevertheless, the Court strikes down the Virginia law because it outlaws all cross burnings, including those intended to express a political view.

2003Law On Library Internet Filters Upheld

In United States v. American Library Association, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000, requiring public libraries that receive certain federal funds to buy internet filters for their computers to weed out material that is “harmful to minors,” does not violate the First Amendment. The Court says that Congress has broad authority to attach restrictions to its funding, and that the CIPA restrictions are consistent with library rules that limit children’s access to only age-appropriate materials. The Court says that libraries are allowed to disable the “blocking” software for adults.

2003Justices Uphold Campaign Finance Law

The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, known as the McCain-Feingold Bill, is an effort to change the way money is raised and spent by political campaigns. Key parts are a ban on unrestricted (“soft money”) donations to political parties (often by corporations and unions) and restrictions on TV ads sponsored by unions, corporations and nonprofit groups up to 60 days before elections. The plaintiffs, including unlikely allies such as the National Rifle Association and the ACLU, say these provisions violate their rights to free speech and association. The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the provisions, finding that they are justified by the government’s interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption that might result.

2004State May Deny Financial Aid For Devotional Study

The U.S. Supreme Court, in Locke v. Davey, finds that Washington State may exclude theology students from receiving state-financed scholarships if they are pursuing a degree in devotional theology. Washington’s Constitution prohibits the financing of religious education, and a 1969 state code applies the prohibition to college financial aid. Joshua Davey filed suit, saying that the ban on financing religious instruction violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

2004Child Online Protection Act Struck Down

After the Child Online Protection Act became law, the ACLU sued to stop its enforcement, saying the law violated the right to free speech. The U.S. District Court and the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both agree with the ACLU. In 2002, however, the U.S. Supreme Court orders the Third Circuit to reevaluate the case, saying the decision was based on insufficient reasoning.

In 2003, the appeals court again finds the law unconstitutional, based on different grounds from the first ruling. The justices agree to rehear the case and, in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, strike down the law. Justice Anthony Kennedy writes that children can be protected from inappropriate material by other, less restrictive ways and that the law could prevent adults from accessing information they have a right to view.

2004Patriot Act Provision Ruled Unconstitutional

A federal judge for the Southern District of New York rules unconstitutional a Patriot Act provision that allows the FBI to demand information about internet users but does not hold the FBI subject to public review or judicial oversight for its actions. The provision also forbids internet service providers from revealing that such information has been requested. Judge Victor Marrero rules that this provision violates the free speech right by prohibiting internet service providers from ever speaking about such FBI requests.

2005Court Divided On Ten Commandments Cases

In Van Orden v. Perry, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol does not violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause barring the government from passing laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” The Court refers to the nation’s tradition of recognizing the commandments’ historical meaning.

In McCreary County v. ACLU, copies of the Ten Commandments were displayed in the courthouses and schools of two Kentucky counties. The Court finds in this case that the displays violated the establishment clause because their purpose was to advance religion.

2006Court Rejects Vermont Campaign Finance Law

Vermont’s Act 64 stringently limits the amounts that candidates for state office may spend on their campaigns and the amounts that individuals, organizations, and political parties may contribute. In Randall v. Sorrell, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirms its 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo that rejected limits on how much candidates could spend on their own campaigns. Regarding Vermont’s contribution limits, the Court says they are so low that they pose a constitutional risk to the electoral process. Challengers may be unable to mount an effective challenge to better-financed incumbents.

2007Court Strikes Down Ad Limits In Campaign Law

The U.S. Supreme Court creates an exemption to advertisement restrictions set out in the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. In Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writes that only ads that make specific appeals to vote for or against a candidate can be prohibited in the period covered by the law – 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election. The Court says limits on TV ads sponsored by corporations or unions in that period amount to censorship of political speech, which is protected under the First Amendment.

2007Justices Restrict Students’ Free Speech Right

In Morse v. Frederick, the U.S. Supreme Court affirms that free speech rights for public school students are not as extensive as those for adults. In this case, a student held up a banner with the message “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” a slang reference to marijuana use, at a school-supervised event across from the campus. The principal removed the banner and suspended the student for 10 days. The majority opinion says that although students have some right to political speech, it does not include pro-drug messages that may undermine the school’s mission to educate against illegal drug use.

2009City’s Refusal Of Religious Monument Upheld

The U.S. Supreme Court decides unanimously in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum that a Utah city did not violate the Summum church’s free speech right by refusing a donation of a monument reflecting its beliefs. The church argued that the park, which had a Ten Commandments monument, was a public forum and that the city could not discriminate among speakers. The Court said permanent monuments were government speech and did not have the same free speech protection as speakers or leaflets in a public forum.

2010Court Lifts Limits On Corporate Election Spending

In Citizens United v. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court rules, 5-4, to remove limits on corporate spending on elections. Corporations and unions still cannot directly give money to federal candidates or national party committees. The majority opinion says the First Amendment right of free speech extended to corporations. The landmark decision overturns decades of rules that governed the campaign finance and sparked fears that a flood of money into politics would dramatically alter campaigns.

2010Corporate Spending Limit Rejected

The U.S. Supreme Court decides, 5-4, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that the government cannot regulate political speech — political spending — by corporations in elections. “If the First Amendment has any force,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writes for the majority, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” The dissenters warn of the consequences if a flood of corporate money is unleashed in elections. Justice John Paul Stevens says corporate speech should not be treated the same as that of people. The ruling overturns two precedents about the free speech rights of corporations: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a 1990 ruling that upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates, and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, a 2003 decision that upheld the part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions.

2011First Amendment Protects Funeral Protests

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain.” Those are Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s words when the Supreme Court rules in Snyder v. Phelps that the First Amendment’s right to free speech protects hateful protests at military funerals. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church — which believes God is punishing the U.S. for its tolerance of homosexuality — had appeared at the funeral of a Marine who died in Iraq. Albert Snyder, the Marine’s father, sued the protesters for, among other things, intentional infliction of emotional distress. Roberts suggests that laws creating buffer zones around funerals would be a better response than punishing unpopular speech. He says that the nation’s commitment to free speech demands protection of “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

2011Ban On Sale Of Violent Video Games To Children Rejected

A California law that banned the sale of violent video games to children is struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision. Justice Antonin Scalia, in the case of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, says the First Amendment protected the video games because they “communicate ideas … through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world).” The California law would have imposed $1,000 fines on stores that sold violent video games to anyone under 18. Violent games were defined as those “in which the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering or sexually assaulting an image of a human being” in a way that was “patently offensive,” appealed to minors’ “deviant or morbid interests” and lacked “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

2012Person’s Right To Lie Is Protected

The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Stolen Valor Act, a federal law that made it illegal for individuals to claim to have won or to wear military medals or ribbons that they didn’t earn. The Court, in a 6-3 ruling, says that the First Amendment protects the right to lie about medals and military service. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy says freedom of speech “protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace.” The government had argued that such lies “inhibit the government’s efforts to ensure that the armed services and the public perceive awards as going only to the most deserving few.”

2012U.S. Can’t Require Graphic Warnings On Cigarette Packs

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rules that the federal Food and Drug Administration cannot require tobacco companies to place large graphic health warnings on cigarette packages to show the effects of smoking. The appeals court upholds a lower court’s decision that the requirement violates the First Amendment’s free speech right. Some of the largest tobacco companies sued the government, arguing that the warnings were not just factual information but advocated against smoking.

2014Contraceptives Mandate Rejected for Some Corporations

The Supreme Court rules, 5-4, that the Affordable Care Act violates a federal law protecting religious freedom by requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception. The coverage was challenged by two corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, whose owners said they try to run their businesses based on Christian principles.

Justice Samuel Alito, in the majority opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, stresses that the Court had decided only that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied to “closely held” for-profit corporations run on religious principles. The Court rejects the government’s argument that neither the owners nor the corporations could bring a religious-freedom claim. “Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby … protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies,” Alito writes. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion criticizes the ruling as a radical overhaul of corporate rights.

2015Court Strikes Down Ban On Inmates’ Beards

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rules that the state of Arkansas cannot bar a Muslim prisoner from growing a beard in accordance with his religion. In Holt v. Hobbs, the Court says the state prison regulations violated the religious liberty rights of the inmates. The prisoner, Gregory Holt, who had filed a handwritten petition to the Court, sought to grow a half-inch beard. The state said its policy addressed security concerns because inmates could hide weapons in their beards. The Court points out that more than 40 state prison systems and the federal system allow short beards and that it was difficult to take seriously the state’s security concern.

2015States May Limit Judicial Candidates’ Fund-Raising Requests

The U.S. Supreme Court rules, 5-4, in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, No. 13-1499 that states may ban judicial candidates from personally asking their supporters for money. Twenty-nine other states also prohibit personal solicitations, which they say threaten the integrity of the judicial branch and public confidence in the system.

2015Intent Cited in Online Threats Case

In a social media case, Elonis v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who had used violent language against his wife on Facebook. The majority opinion says prosecutors failed to prove the defendant’s intent when he published threatening lyrics about his wife on Facebook. The decision makes it harder to prosecute people for threats made on social media.

2015Court Says Texas May Reject License Plate Design

The U.S. Supreme Court decides in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., 5-4, that Texas may refuse to make a specialty license plate with the Confederate flag. The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the state when it refused to make such a plate. The group said its First Amendment right to free speech had been violated. The majority opinion says that because license plates “constitute government speech,” Texas could choose which designs to produce.

2019Federal Ban on ‘Immoral,’ ‘Scandalous’ Trademarks Struck Down

The U.S. Supreme Court rules, 6-3, that the federal government’s ban on registering “immoral” and “scandalous” trademarks violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. The dissenters express concern that the majority opinion goes too far and that the trademark office would be forced to register trademarks containing “the most vulgar, profane, or obscene words and images imaginable.” In the case, Iancu v. Brunetti, a Los Angeles artist, Erik Brunetti, sued the government for refusing to register the trademark for his “subversive” clothing line.

2022Censure of Politician Is Constitutional, High Court Says

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decides in House Community College System v. Wilson that elected bodies do not violate the First Amendment’s free speech clause when they censure a member.
Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote: “In this country, we expect elected representatives to shoulder a degree of criticism about their public service from their constituents and their peers — and to continue exercising their free speech rights when the criticism comes.”

2022High Court Rules Against Boston On Christian Flag

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rules in Shurtleff v. City of Boston that the City of Boston violated the First Amendment when it refused to let a private group raise a Christian flag in front of its City Hall. One of three flagpoles is occasionally made available to groups seeking to celebrate their backgrounds or to promote causes like gay pride. In a 12-year period, the city approved 284 requests to raise flags and rejected only one, from Camp Constitution, which says it seeks “to enhance understanding of our Judeo-Christian moral heritage.” The city’s refusal to let the group fly its flag based on its religious viewpoint violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment, the majority opinion said.

2022High Court Says Coach Has Right to Pray on Field

The U.S. Supreme Court rules, 6-3, that a high school football coach had a constitutional right to pray on the field after a game, joined by players who wanted to participate. The majority opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District says the school relied exclusively and improperly on concerns that the prayers would be viewed as a religious endorsement by the school.