Protest: First Amendment and the Freedom of Speech

Zimmytws/Getty Images- https://www.history.com/topics/united-states-constitution/first-amendmenthttps://www.history.com/topics/united-states-constitution/first-amendment

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

First Amendment

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.

In discussing the functions of the First Amendment the Legal Institute states “The First Amendment guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. It forbids Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual’s religious practices. It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely. It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.”

One of the foundational rights of the American people is the right to peacefully assemble. It is one of the most wonderful things about our American Democracy. It gives American citizens the ability to express their grievances about their government in a peaceful way.

Upon the death of George Floyd by the hand of law enforcement many were surprised at how quickly people took to the streets and how widespread the protests were. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the protests spread from Minnesota to as far as Cincinnati, New York and Chicago. There were protests all over the world, in places like Brazil, Denmark, Germany and New Zealand.        

Another aspect of the protests that surprised people was how some of the protests quickly became violent. Some journalists placed the blame for the violence on law enforcement, stating that they escalated the situation. Of course people quickly resorted to judgment and began blaming people of color for the looting and destruction only to find out that many of the rioters were white. Further, white supremacist were using the protest to sow discord with the black protesters. It is important to again acknowledge that most of the protesters in the US were peaceful. But the overall lesson here is that Americans have the right to protest peacefully. President Trump drew a lot of criticism when he stated that he would send the US military to break up the protests.

It is of the utmost importance that students understand their right to speak their mind and protest peacefully. Below I have provided some lessons and resources to help students understand their first amendment rights as democratic citizens.  

Educational Resources
Lesson Plan: Freedom of Speech in Schools
First Amendment Lesson Plan Activities
Introduction to the First Amendment: My Five Freedoms
New York Times- Freedom of Speech? A Lesson on Understanding the Protections and Limits of the First Amendment
The First Amendment: What’s Fair in a Free Country?
The First Amendment and Our Freedoms
Introduction to the 1st Amendment
Lesson Plan: First Amendment 101

17 Comments

  1. The right to protest peacefully is the first amendment in the Constitution. I am not a strong political person, but I feel that the current peaceful protests that are now being threatened because of our president will lead to a downward spiral towards destruction. Threatening people for standing up for what they believe leads to tyranny and dictatorships. The violence that has occurred is only showing the ignorance of people that are taking advantage of a terrible situation. Pepper spraying and shooting innocent people with rubber bullets isn’t the answer. Hong Kong has started to spray blue dye that can’t be washed off onto violent protestors to later be arrested. Why can’t we have a peaceful reaction to peaceful protests?

  2. Dr. Child’s reminds of us in this article the importance of Freedom of Speech. I agree with him when he stated that we was pleasantly surprised to see how many people in so many different states and countries were protesting. There is nothing illegal or wrong about peacefully protesting, it is the right of the people to do so. Dr. Child’s provides further resources for students to educate themselves on the topic and further understand their right to freedom of speech.

  3. From the start of America, Europeans used slaves to build the foundations of our “free” but very unequal country. It is evident that inequality and racism still exist today, but have only been clear to many Americans through micro aggressions and underlying systemic racism of our society. I believe it is clear that as BLM and supporters have peacefully protested, they have seen brute force from police due to this systemic racism continued since violence toward the slaves in order to maintain control. Another aspect of the situation is how journalists have also received backlash and abuse from our police force. It is our right as Americans to the freedom of the press as well as to peaceful protesting and assembling. At what point do Americans take back control and can we without it being a war between the government and civilians?

  4. Dr. Child is correct that we have the First Amendment right to peacefully assemble to petition the government for changes and we need to be reminded of this right. I believe that we are often bombarded by the negativity of a few exceptional and violent instances while hundreds of protests are peacefully being held across the world. These peaceful protests rarely make the headlines in this modern world. The media is in the market to sell news and violence and exceptional stories sell, not the peaceful ones. It is important to remember that most of these protests are done peacefully and meaningfully. And that it is our right as Americans to protest any injustices that we deem necessary.

  5. The First Amendment gives us the right to peacefully petition the government. I too was very surprised how widespread these protests regarding the death of George Floyd have been. I agree that the majority of the protests have been peaceful, publicly announced and well planned-out.
    After seeing several social media posts of some of my African American girlfriends, who proclaimed that if this were to be their son, they would light downtown on fire. I understand the “Mama Bear” instinct, which probably lives inside every mother at times, and the feeling of helplessness to try to protect your children. And the peaceful protesting of these police brutality issues has not made any difference. Therefore, I know the violence won’t make anything better, but I’m trying to be sympathetic towards the looters, vandals and fire-starters who feel the need to destroy and steal properties. Videos clearly show that people of all races are seen running out of Target with arms full of merchandise, and of the other destruction. On Day 12 of protesting, it does seem to have calmed down so hopefully we’re on the right track, for equality.

  6. We not only have the right as citizens to assemble peaceably, but it is our responsibility. We must do our part and put our efforts where our mouths are to move the needle. I understand and agree with peaceful protests, but I honestly don’t understand looting. Why cause such destruction in our communities and to our small businesses? A lot of these businesses are owned by minorities and if they lose their business they could lose everything. This has been one of the most disturbing events of the past few weeks that I’ve seen. We can take a stand. Make our voices heard. Peacefully!

  7. I will admit I take my rights for granted. I do not have the First Amendment memorized. I knew it covered speech and vaguely remembered it covered religion. It is good to be reminded it gives a right to assembly, petition, and a free press. I feel like the free press is especially important in times like these. President Trump’s constant assault on the media with cries of “fake news” is frightening. The press has done a tremendous job showing exactly what is happening at these protests. It has forced police departments to amend their statements after video evidence is distributed. The current reports that unmarked officers are patrolling Washington is very frightening. Hopefully students will also learn the value of the free press will learning about the First Amendment.

  8. The first amendment is about the freedom of speech, religion, press and the right to assemble. This article reminds me that freedom of speech comes with a responsibility. On the internet, I see people use the first amendment as an excuse to justify otherwise backward ideals such as racism or nazi party views. That’s not the purpose of the first amendment. The first amendment is supposed to give people the courage to speak up new ideas that could be used to improve our country for the better and not be suppressed by institutional norms.

  9. Protesting has been a successful tool for many great changes in America. However I do believe that there are people who do not support the movement but see an opportunity to loot, riot, and provoke violence. these people cast a shadow over the true meaning of the protest. The lack of leadership in the recent events since George Floyd murder has been disgusting to say the least. Our President is incapable of uniting the American people. Everyone has the right to peaceful protest, and the actions taken against peaceful protestors in Washington D.C showed that their rights were being ignored.

  10. The article is very relevant to the current situation in our world today. Like stated in the article, in the US we have the right to peacefully assemble aka protest. This was the case in the majority of the BLM protests but, there were still times when these protests were wrongfully broken up or turned violent. There were many instances when the protests turned violent because the police used excessive force to show the protesters their power. Like using tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on groups of peaceful protesters and journalists.

  11. I find the president’s comments about the use of military force against protestors to be truly disturbing. I would say it isn’t off-brand for him, but I’d rather not excuse and normalize such behavior from the unfortunately seated leader of our country. I am glad that the freedom to speak and assemble is so high on the list of our rights. Protests have an important place in democracy. Especially for an issue so urgent as police brutality and discrimination against black Americans, I am proud of the quick and passionate response of all those protesting. I look forward to seeing real change.

    • The first amendment is suppose to give us freedom of speech and religion, but I feel that amendment means nothing when you cannot do so. I understand a peaceful protest so there will not be chaos, but even people who have protested have been arrested. There was a men’s in suits protest in Cincinnati which I attended and during there protest numerous of men explained how they were arrested for protesting. If it’s a peaceful protest and the first amendment says freedom of speech why are our black men getting arrested. This entire government is backwards and they have to do better.

  12. This article was a fantastic reminder that we ARE allowed to protest. My girlfriend and I attended a protest on Sunday and it was incredible. There was over a thousand people in attendance and it remained peaceful the entire time. Since the protests began, there have been convictions made (George Floyd’s murderer) and cases reopened (Breonna Taylor’s murder), these protests do make a difference and encourages not only people in attendance but the people that are witnessing it as well. Protests are protected by our First Amendment rights, and I am excited to see the rest of the changes that will be made due to the worldwide protests at this time.

  13. After reading the article on the general limitations of free speech, also written by Dr.Childs, it appears that this article gives a relevant take on the actual infringement of those first amendment rights. The inability to distinguish between peaceful protesters and looters is ironically similar to the refusal to distinguish between good cops and bad cops. These peaceful protests exemplify an essential right that we must practice to maintain a channel of communication with our leadership in times of injustice. The higher the power distance, the more likely corruption is to occur and we have a duty as citizens to prevent that. So we must continue to protest.

  14. It’s awe inspiring to see how many people (nationally and internationally) support the protests over the deaths of George Floyd and so many others. However, the very fact that we have to protest and are being met with such resistance on a federal level tells you all you need to know about the structural violence and systematic racism in the United States. It is our First Amendment right to protest, a right being limited and revoked by use of heavy force and curfew. Although the government has started to listen and changes are beginning to be made, this can only be the beginning. If we stop protesting and stop fighting now, the government will do the same things in a couple years when we forget. We must fight for large scale, progressive change so we never have to face these problems again. That is the only way we can fight structural violence and systematic racism.

  15. After reading this article the limitations of freedom of speech I feel like it is important to talk about protesting and what is appropriate under the first amendment. As someone who is not a political person I don’t know the ends and out of something like protesting. What I do know is that the government has started to make some changes to what has been currently happening after George Floyd’s death by police force.

  16.      In this article Dr. Childs discusses the first amendment, the right to protest, and the unrest across the country following Mr. Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. The protests caused a good deal of controversy across the nation as these events were observed, leaving many in the country to split the narrative along partisan lines. Reading Dr. Childs’ article reminded me of a quote I read over the summer from Thomas Jefferson regarding Shays Rebellion, “No country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance.” (To William Smith: Paris, Nov. 13, 1787,” Peterson, ed., Writings, 911). While there were many violent and destructive events that happened this summer we must remember that as Americans the right to protest is a fundamental cornerstone of our republic. 

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