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

10 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

  10. 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?

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