On September 17, 1787 the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the last time to sign the document they had created. The National Archives and Records Administration celebrates this important day in our nation's history by presenting the following activities, lesson plans, and information. We encourage teachers and students at all levels to learn more about our Constitution and government.
The First Amendent reads as follows:
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.
Let's break this down into it's constituent parts shall we?
1. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.
2. Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
3. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.
4. Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.
5. Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble.
6. Congress shall make no law abridging the right of the people to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Let's also remember that the rights in the Bill of Rights are not absolute. Restrictions can – and in a place that follows the rule of law, must – be placed. For example, your right of free speech is restricted in that you may not shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Your right to peaceably assemble ends when you try to assemble on my private property.
And a final point: Congress herein means federal House and Senate (and bills signed by the President into law). States can make all sorts of laws regarding each of these six issues as long as making such laws is not contrary to that state's own constitution.
The Vermont Constitution states:
That all persons have a natural and unalienable right, to worship Almighty God, according to the dictates of their own consciences and understandings, as in their opinion shall be regulated by the word of God; and that no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any minister, contrary to the dictates of conscience, nor can any person be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of religious sentiments, or peculiar mode of religious worship; and that no authority can, or ought to be vested in, or assumed by, any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner control the rights of conscience, in the free exercise of religious worship. Nevertheless, every sect or denomination of Christians ought to observe the sabbath or Lord's day, and keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.
So, you can be whatever religion you want, but if you are Christian, you should go to Church on Sundays.
1. Congress (federal) can not make a law to establish the Church of the United States. (In my mind that would include the first church of atheism). This clause was added so that United States would not follow England's example and have a Church of England situation with a King or Queen as titular head of said church.
2. Congress (federal) can not make a law to prohibit the free exercise of religion. (Legal restrictions can, again, be placed on this. For example human sacrifice is against the law. You may not practice that even if your religion calls for it. Polygamy is against the law. You may not practice it even if your religion calls for it.)
3. Congress (federal) can not make a law abridging the freedom of speech. (There are legal restrictions. As noted above, one can not shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. The safety of the patrons outweighs your free speech rights).
Alaska's Constitution says this best I think:
SECTION 5. FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Every person may freely speak, write, and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right.
So, say or write what you will, but be prepared to take responsibility and the consequences should you abuse that right.
4. Congress can not make a law abridging the freedom of the press. The press have the right to print what they want. This is restricted by laws regarding libel and slander. The press do not have the right to get in your face and ask questions. If they are on your property (or other private property) you can tell them to go away. If they won't, you can have the police remove them. They can ask questions but do not have the right to an answer. There is no special privilege for journalists to keep secrets. Doctors/Patient and Attorney/Client relationships are covered by privilege. Journalist/informant relationships are not.
5. Congress (federal) can not make a law abridging the right of the people to peaceably assemble. Once again, the federal government can not make a law. A municipality has the right to require a permit if they so desire. A municipality may want to know when and where an assembly may be held in order to schedule police presence and perhaps even close off streets to accomodate crowds.
6. Congress (federal) can not make a law abridging the right of the people to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. One is able to petition the Government without fear of reprisals.
These are all my own thoughts on the First Amendment, memories of High School civics courses (lo these many years ago), and recent readings all over the Web…