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Video transcript

hi this is Kim from Khan Academy and today I'm learning more about the First Amendment to the US Constitution the First Amendment is one of the most important amendments to the Constitution if not the most important it reads Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances to learn more about the First Amendment I talked to two experts Arwen Mariinsky is the Jesse H Chopper distinguished professor of law and Dean of Berkeley law Michael McConnell is the director of the constitutional law Center at Stanford Law School and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution professor Shamar insky there's a lot going on in the First Amendment can you tell us a little bit more about why the framers chose to protect these rights in particular the historical background of the First Amendment of the Constitution shows why the framers wanted to be sure that all of the liberties of the First Amendment were safeguarded let's focus on freedom of speech and freedom of the press in England there was after the printing press developed licensing so that anyone who wanted to be able to publish anything need to have a license and the government such licensing was seen to be inconsistent with freedom of speech freedom of the press for that matter freedom of thought freedom of inquiry interesting okay so there are a lot of essential freedoms that are packed into this First Amendment so much that it's almost amazing that we're gonna attempt to talk about them all in one video but if we dial in to freedom of speech professor McConnell what is freedom of speech does that encompass some things and not others freedom of speech was actually less important to the framers than the freedom with which it was coupled which is the freedom of the press and the reason for this is that speech that can reach large audiences is much more important to the individual but also dangerous to the state the mere speech when you speak only those people within hearing range can hear you but when you are able to use Gutenberg's fantastic new technology to publish your sentiments and distribute them widely maybe even over the entire country or across the Atlantic and reaching hundreds and thousands of people now that is powerful and no wonder so you think about how the American Revolution was won this required spreading the word required gaining converts and telling people what their grievances were to a very great extent this was done through the mechanism of the printing press when you ask the question of what's freedom of speech there's implicit within it the issue of what do we mean by speech ultimately the answer to your question is that the First Amendment protecting speech broadly safeguards a right to express one's ideas but it's not absolute the government can restrict expression if there's a compelling interest interesting can you say more about that the Supreme Court always has been clear that freedom of speech is not absolute the court has said that there are certain categories of speech that are unprotected by the First Amendment incitement of illegal activity is a category of unprotected speech the court is that this requires showing that the speech was directed at causing imminent illegal activity and there was a substantial likelihood of imminent illegal activity another example of sanity is unprotected by the First Amendment the court struggled for years with trying to define what is obscenity maybe the low point in that is when justice Potter Stewart said I can't define it but I know it when I see it there are also these categories of speech whether the government can prohibit even punish the expression that's where most of the limitations on the freedom of speech and of the press come from is in order to make sure that we don't hurt other people's rights through the use of of our our own so an example of that the government can prohibit speech which incites violence against someone so if you're making a speech and and calling upon the crowd to attack somebody's house or their person that can be punished and prevented as an incitement to violence and you can see how that follows from the logical idea of freedom of speech being a natural right and therefore limited by the rights of other people so let's turn our attention toward the freedom of religion part of the First Amendment so the first thing that the Amendment says is about establishment so what does this Establishment Clause prevent the language of the First Amendment is important it says that Congress may make no law respecting the establishment of religion since 1947 the Supreme Court has said that it also applies to state and local governments and the Supreme Court has said this means that the government cannot act with the purpose of advancing religion to the founders this was a very clear a legal concept namely it was the established a Church of England in the statute books in the law the Church of England was referred to as and I quote the church by law established what did it mean to be established first of all it meant that the doctrines of the church the thirty-nine articles of faith of the Church of England were voted upon by Parliament so the doctrines the liturgy the texts were all adopted by law the established church was the government's Church and it could be used and from time to time was used you know as an instrument of government or as an instrument of politics and this is a way in which the government is able to have a powerful influence on the way in which of values and opinions are inculcated one of the most important ideas of the established church especially in the 18th century was to teach that there's actually a religious obligation to obey the law and to recognize the king as a supreme leader in matters of both church and state and the framers experience with this was extremely powerful that's because the framers were aware of the religious persecution that had gone on in other countries they were aware of the evils that occur when the government becomes aligned with a particular religion the principal reason why many of the colonists had come to these shores to begin with was to escape the oppressions of the established Church of England back home and to come to a place where they would be able to exercise the freedom of religion for themselves and the main opponents of the established church were not anti-christian or anti religious people they were the most religious people and their view was the government should stay out of our church we will decide what we believe for ourselves we will control our own church we'll write our own liturgy we'll decide what version of the Bible we're going to use we'll choose our own ministers thank you very much government stay out of it leave us free to practice our religion without having this kind of an establishment so for instance accounting in Kentucky required that the Ten Commandments be posted in all county buildings the Supreme Court said the Ten Commandments are religious Scripture there's no secular purpose for having the Ten Commandments posted in county buildings the court declared it unconstitutional the Supreme Court has said the government can't act where the primary effect is to advance or to inhibit religion so for example that can't be prayer in public schools even a voluntary prayer in public schools is impermissible because the court has said that the primary effect of having prayer in public schools is to advance religion the court has explained that children will inevitably feel pressured to participate this coercion violates the Constitution so the first amendment then prevents that kind of intermingling of the government and the church this is I guess the the key idea of separation between church and state but it also says that the Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion so what does that mean free exercise of religion was the right to practice your own religion it didn't keep the government from setting up a church but it did keep the government from requiring you to attend that church maybe even to contribute to the church but also kept the government from preventing you from worshiping elsewhere so the Establishment Clause by and large prevents the government from forcing people to participate in religion and the Free Exercise Clause by and large prohibits the government from preventing people from practicing their religion those two things work together to enable everyone to worship God in accordance with their own conscience interesting all right so we mentioned a little bit about freedom of the press but there are two other aspects the First Amendment the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances so what is included with the right to peaceably assemble are there any situations where that might be restricted the Supreme Court has said that under freedom of speech there's a right to use government property for speech purposes this is also something that tails the freedom of assembly and the Supreme Court has said that there's certain government properties that the government is required to make available for speech sidewalks in parks there's other places where the government is more latitude to regulating speech school facilities evenings and weekends there's places where the government can close entirely speech military bases here is outside prisons and jails all of these cases could have been litigated under freedom of assembly some of the earlier cases explicitly mentioned freedom of assembly the subsequent cases combined freedom of assembly into the protection of freedom of speech I guess that makes sense but what about something like a March for example that might say block traffic that's perhaps a clear case when there is this tension between freedom of speech and assembly and say public safety if they're blocking say an ambulance how do you resolve that tension sometime in roughly the 1970s the court began using a quite different way of looking at the free speech question in which they they said that loss which regulate or prohibit speech on the basis of the content of the speech are generally speaking unconstitutional absent a very important governmental purpose but the laws that are content neutral and regulate speech on the basis of its time place or manner are permitted so the basic idea here is the government has regulatory authority over speech but not over what you say but just over when you say it where you say that how you say it all right so the last thing in the First Amendment is the phrase petitioning the government for a redress of grievances but Congress shall make no law abridging that freedom what does this mean how would one petition the government for a redress of grievances there of course many ways that people can petition government redress of grievances it's the ability to go and testify before our legislative body it's the ability to communicate with one's legislators or representatives about change it's basically the ability to go to the government and ask it to change its policy there were relatively few cases just about the right to petition government for just grievances again I think the reason for that is it's been so subsumed into the protection of freedom of speech everything one would do by way of petitioning government for dress of grievances is through speech and expression and so the larger protection of speech and expression is a man that the court hasn't need to focus so much on this particular right is there anything that you feel people commonly misunderstand about the First Amendment what it encompasses and what it does not what are the most important misunderstandings but the First Amendment is people fail to realize that it like all rights in the Constitution apply only to the government before I took my current job I was a professor at Duke University in Durham North Carolina Duke is a private university if while I was there I had criticized the President to the University and he would order me fired I could not have sued him or Duke University for violating my free speech rights the First Amendment doesn't apply through the private university but now I'm at the University of California a State University if I were to give a speech criticizing the president of the university or the chancellor of my campus and I was to be fired for doing that I could sue I would sue since this is a public university the first derivative lies so I think the really dangerous thing in our times is that many people are believed that they have some kind of a right not to hear opinions that they find offensive certainly college campuses are filled with controversies of this sort you know this is something that our Constitution was designed to prevent free speech can and inflict offense sometimes it can be hurtful and insulting but we as a nation have decided that it is better to put up with that so that we can all be free to express ourselves to criticize the government to urge the religious and scientific and artistic ideas that we have and that it's more important for all of us to be able to do that than it is to be able to retreat to safe spaces and and require other people to shut up so we've learned that the rights protected in the First Amendment derive from the historical context of restricted speech press and religion in Europe that the framers wish to avoid in the United States freedom of religion includes both the freedom not to participate in religion and the freedom to practice whichever religion you choose freedom of speech extends to all forms of freedom of expression not just words but there are limits to what counts US free speech to learn more about the First Amendment visit the National Constitution Center's interactive Constitution and Khan Academy's resources on US government and politics