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

11 Comments

  1. I think that it is important that we use our first amendment rights. We should speak up for the wrong doings we see, and the fact that people were surprised when people took to the streets after George Floyd’s death seems a little crazy to me. People saw an innocent black man be murdered by the ones who are supposed to protect us, and expected others to not use their voice? I feel as if that is more ignorant than anything. I’m glad people are using their voice to fight for what they believe in.

  2. Lots of people forget that protesting is why we have some of the things we have. The Stonewall riots helped further the LGBTQ+ community in their efforts to have their own space in society. The BLM protests have served to help change legislation, in some areas, as it relates to law enforcement and their funding. Women have the right to vote because of Suffragettes who protested and rallied to equal rights. Your freedom of speech is highly important and if used the right way can help change the course of things either on a small scale or a large one.

  3. The First Amendment is arguably the most important and influential of our amendments. It is also one of the hardest to follow through to. Despite its presence in our Constitution, it is still not a freedom universally granted to all citizens. We still see violence spurred from religion and race. We see backlash against people who attempt to exercise their right to speak freely, and we see peaceful protests quickly turn violent due to their right to do so being questioned or infringed upon. This is the land of the free, and everyone should be able to exercise those natural rights and freedoms without fear of negative consequences. 

  4. I enjoyed reading this article. I hated to see the protest turn violent. I believe that the main reasons that any of the protest took a violent turn was that either law enforcement overstepped or there were people there for the wrong reasons. Some people took advantage of the situation and saw this as an opportunity to do whatever they wanted. In doing that, not only are they endangering themselves and the people around them by making law enforcement have to act, they are taking away from a meaningful and needed protest and discussion in this country.

  5.      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. 

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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