The First Amendment Throughout History

Mary Beth and John Tinker display their black peace armbands.
Mary Beth and John Tinker used their First Amendment rights at school to wear these armbands.

Have you noticed how many rallies and marches there have been lately? It seems like every month there’s another big march. Wonder why?

Americans have a long history of assembly [gathering together for a cause]. In fact, it is one of our freedoms of expression as outlined in the United States Constitution. Our First Amendment describes our most basic rights as Americans: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of press, right to assembly, and the right to speak out against the government if you disagree with it.

When people assemble, they bring attention to their issues. When representatives see and hear what their voters want, they try to make it happen for them. Just last month, teachers in West Virginia assembled together for their cause. They felt that they’d been treated unfairly. They rallied together for almost two weeks straight. In the end, their representatives listened to them and gave them what they asked for.

Americans have used their First Amendment rights in other ways, too. Did you know that students can exercise [use] freedom of expression at school? In 1965, three students wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The school asked them to take the armbands off but the students refused. So, they were suspended. They went to court over it, and the Supreme Court decided that, as long as their expressions don’t cause disruption to the school day, students still have their First Amendment rights.

On the other hand, the First Amendment doesn’t protect certain kinds of speech. Famously, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. declared that the First Amendment doesn’t cover speech that can cause danger to others. He gave the example of falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded movie theater. Our expressions cannot lead to immediate harmful effects.

What Do You Think? What should the First Amendment cover? Should Americans be allowed to express themselves however they want? Or should there be limits?

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