First Amendment – Freedom of Speech

The First Amendment allows citizens to express and to be exposed to a wide range of opinions and views. It was intended to ensure a free exchange of ideas even if the ideas are unpopular. Freedom of speech encompasses not only the spoken and written word, but also all kinds of expression (including non-verbal communications, such as sit-ins, art, photographs, films and advertisements).

1735Truth Is A Defense Against Libel Charge

New York printer John Peter Zenger is tried on charges of seditious libel for publishing criticism of the royal governor. English law – asserting that the greater the truth, the greater the libel – prohibits any published criticism of the government that would incite public dissatisfaction with it. Zenger’s lawyer, Alexander Hamilton, convinces the jury that Zenger should be acquitted because the articles were, in fact, true, and that New York libel law should not be the same as English law. The Zenger case is a landmark in the development of protection of freedom of speech and the press.

1787Federalist Papers’ Publication Starts

The first of 85 essays written under the pen name Publius by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay begin to appear in the New York Independent Journal. The essays, called the Federalist Papers, support ratification of the Constitution approved by the Constitutional Convention on Sept. 17, 1787. In Federalist Paper No. 84, Hamilton discusses “liberty of the press,” saying it “shall be inviolably preserved.”

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.

1798Alien And Sedition Acts Signed Into Law

While the nation’s leaders believe an outspoken press was justified during the war for independence, they take a different view when they are in power. The Federalist-controlled Congress passes the Alien and Sedition Acts. Aimed at quashing criticism of Federalists, the Sedition Act makes it illegal for anyone to express “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against Congress or the president.

The United States is in an undeclared war with France, and Federalists say the law is necessary to protect the nation from attacks and to protect the government from false and malicious words. Republicans argue for a free flow of information and the right to publicly examine officials’ conduct.

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.

1873Circulation Of Birth Control Information Outlawed

An “Act of the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” is passed by Congress. The act, more commonly known as the Comstock Act – after anti-obscenity activist Anthony Comstock – makes it a crime to publish, distribute or possess information about contraception or abortion, or to distribute or possess devices or medications used for those purposes.

Lawmakers were responding to increasing concern about abortion, the institution of marriage, and the changing role of women in society.

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: 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.

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.

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.

1940Flag Salute Requirement Is Upheld

In Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Pennsylvania flag-salute law after a challenge by a Jehovah’s Witness family whose two children were expelled for refusing to salute the flag. They believe the salute is forbidden by biblical commands. The Court says the flag is a symbol of national unity, which is the “basis of national security.”

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.”

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.

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.”

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 five African Americans for disturbing the peace when they staged a sit-in at an all-white restaurant to protest segregation. 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.”

1964Court Establishes ‘Actual Malice’ Standard

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court establishes the “actual malice” standard when it reverses a civil libel judgment against the New York Times. The newspaper was sued for libel by Montgomery, Ala.’s police commissioner after it published a full-page ad that criticized anti-civil rights activities in Montgomery. The court rules that debate about public issues and officials is central to the First Amendment. Consequently, public officials cannot sue for libel unless they prove that a statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning it was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

1978Nazis Permitted To March In Skokie, Ill.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidates a city law passed in Skokie, Ill., home to 5,000 Holocaust survivors, to prevent a neo-Nazi group from holding a march there. The Court rules in Collin v. Smith that the group should be permitted to march in their uniforms, distribute anti-Semitic leaflets and display swastikas. The court does not deny the group’s symbols are offensive to many observers, but concludes that “public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” The U.S. Supreme Court will refuse to review the case.

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.

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.

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.

1985Anti-Pornography Law Is Struck Down

In American Booksellers Association v. Hudnut, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals strikes down an Indianapolis anti-pornography law. The law had not used the court’s guidelines for deciding what is “obscene” material. The court finds that the law unconstitutionally targeted a certain viewpoint and allowed the government to decide which ideas are good or bad.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

1991Media Coverage Limited In Gulf War

The Pentagon imposes rules for media coverage of the war in the Persian Gulf, citing the possibility that some news – including information on downed aircrafts, specific troop numbers, and names of operations – may endanger lives or jeopardize U.S. military strategy. Nine news organizations file a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of limiting media access to the battleground. But a court rules the question moot when the war ends before the case is decided.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

2000Children’s Internet Protection Act Passed

Congress passes the Children’s Internet Protection Act. The law requires public libraries that receive certain federal funds to use a portion of those funds to buy internet programs for their computer terminals to filter out material that is “harmful to minors.” The American Library Association and the ACLU both bring lawsuits challenging the law on First Amendment grounds.

2002Ban On ‘Virtual’ Child Porn Struck Down

In Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Child Pornography Prevention Act’s criminalization of computer-generated depictions of children engaging in sexual activity violates the First Amendment. The Court finds that the law goes further than existing child pornography laws (which ban material involving actual children) to potentially cover many kinds of images that are not pornographic.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

2015Town Ordinance On Signs Struck Down

In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously strikes down a town law that treated a church’s signs differently from other signs, such as political ads. Unlike other signs, the church signs were limited in size and allowed to be in place for only a certain number of house. The majority opinion says that the town ordinance was based on the content of the sign’s message, which violates the First Amendment’s free speech right.

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.