The First Amendment right for individuals to express information, ideas and opinions without government restrictions and subject only to reasonable limits is considered the most important right in the Constitution.
In this lesson students gain insight into the many challenges involved in defining and protecting free speech. They also learn about principles that come from U.S. Supreme Court decisions, such as Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and Morse v. Frederick, and case law that are applied to define the limits for us today.
This documentary examines the First Amendment’s protection of a free press as well as the historic origins of this right and the ramifications of the landmark ruling in New York Times v. United States, the Pentagon Papers case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prior restraint is unconstitutional.
Justices Breyer, Kennedy and O’Connor and students discuss students’ free speech rights in the U.S. Supreme Court cases Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and Morse v. Frederick.
Free speech is our most fundamental—and our most contested—right. It is an essential freedom because it is how we protect all of our other rights and liberties. If we could not speak openly about the policies and actions of government, then we would have no effective way to participate in the democratic process.
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).
The controversy that led to the Tinker decision began at a late-November 1965 antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C. Among the thousands of protestors at the nation’s capital were about fifty Iowans, including two high school students from Des Moines, John Tinker and Christopher Eckhardt.
Constitutional issues inevitably arise when the government’s efforts to prevent crime clash with the need to protect those accused of crime. The U.S. Supreme Court confronted such issues in Miranda v. Arizona (1966).
In a constitutional democracy such as the United States, there inevitably is tension between majority rule and the rights of individuals in the minority. Citizens and their government continually confront two challenging questions.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech.” It expresses an absolute prohibition of legislation that would deny this freedom. Constitutional protection of this fundamental civil liberty, however, has not been absolute.