Last Updated 14 Apr 2020

limitations of first amendment

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The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America speaks of certain guaranteed freedoms of the citizens. Said freedoms, are of paramount importance, and having been guaranteed by the supreme law of the land, it means that intrusions into said rights can not be countenanced. The First Amendment states that

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.

It appears that the First Amendment speaks mainly of three fundamental rights of the citizens namely, the right to freely exercise one’s religion; freedom of speech and of the press; and the right to peaceably assemble. By virtue of the Constitution, intrusions respecting said rights cannot be allowed. It bears to stress that the First Amendment serves as a reminder that the branches of the government, in exercising their powers, must not step or intrude into said guaranteed rights. However, it must be borne in mind that the freedom granted to the citizens under the First Amendment is not absolute in character.

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There are certain limitations to the exercise of First Amendment rights wherein reasonable intrusion by the State is permitted in order to prevent dissension among the citizens and to avoid causing undue injury. In formulating laws, the primordial concern of the lawmakers is the furtherance and protection of the interests of the public in general. Hence, the laws, most especially the Constitution, cannot be used as a shield in justifying one’s act of injuring another. As will be discussed, law and jurisprudence have laid down the guidelines in exercising the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. So also, the limitations as to the exercise of First Amendment rights have been affirmed as necessary in order to regulate the conduct of citizens within the State.

The first right mentioned under the First Amendment is the freedom of religion. The free exercise clause proscribes the State from sponsoring a certain form of religion. The State must be impartial as regards the different forms of religion within the State.  But more importantly, this clause grants to the citizens the freedom to be respected in their choice of belief. A citizen cannot be compelled by the State to choose and to practice a certain type of religion. A citizen is free to choose his own religion and is free to do acts in accordance with his or her belief. The limitation imposed upon the free exercise clause is aptly stated by the Court in the case of Cantwell vs. Connecticut thus,

Freedom of conscience and freedom to adhere to such religious organization or form of worship as the individual may choose cannot be restricted by law. On the other hand, it safeguards the free exercise of the chosen form of religion. Thus, the amendment embraces two concepts—freedom to believe and freedom to act. The first is absolute, but in the nature of things, the second cannot be (310 US 296 (1940)).

Hence, it appears that while an individual is granted by the Constitution the freedom to believe and to act in accordance to one’s belief, the exercise of said right cannot be limitless. The acts of an individual must be regulated by the State, even if the same be done as a way of professing his belief, if the same is already detrimental or prejudicial the interests of the public in general. If an individual does an act which is in contravention with a prohibitive law, he cannot use his religion as a defense.

Infringement of said freedom is permitted when the unreasonable exercise of said right can cause danger and harm to the public interest. Although his freedom to believe is guaranteed by the Constitution, the same law cannot permit prejudice and injustice to prevail to spring from said freedom.

An individual shall not be excused from complying with a law by reason of his religious belief, especially if the object of the law is a legitimate purpose, and if the same is not an attack against religion. It must always be borne in mind that the paramount concern of our laws is to promote and serve public interest. Hence, if a certain action on the part of a citizen can be characterized as a frustration of the interest of the public in general, it cannot be considered as protected by the First Amendment.

The second part of the First Amendment speaks of the freedom of speech. Under this clause, one is free to express his own views and opinions.

This clause indeed strengthens the State’s belief in the concept of democracy as the opinion of citizens is given weight and importance. Under the Constitution, an individual cannot be restrained when it comes to airing out his opinions and views either orally, in print, or through other mediums of communication. It is noteworthy, however, that this right is also limited in operation in the sense that not every form or speech or communication is protected by the law. It is settled that “there are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which has never been thought to raise any Constitutional problems” (Chaplinsky vs. New Hapshire, 315 US 568 (1942)). It thus appears that not every utterance enjoys the freedom granted by the First Amendment.

Examples of said unprotected speeches are libel and obscenity. Libelous words and statements cannot be countenanced under the law. The First Amendment cannot be used, for instance, as a justification for violating the right of another to privacy and to be free from undue vexations. It must not be forgotten that the freedom of speech is granted in order to recognize the value of the voice and views of the citizens. There can be no value as regards speech that are damaging to other parties.

As the same already inflicts injury to another person, the perpetrator is not permitted to seek shelter under the First Amendment. The same can be said about obscene publications, being in contravention and offensive to the concept of chastity and decency. It is because of the grave injury caused by said utterances to the public in general that made them fall outside the ambit of the First Amendment protection.

Lastly, the First Amendment speaks of the right of the people to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for the redress of their grievances. This is a fundamental right as the citizens are not restricted from gathering themselves in order for them to air out their opinions and bring their concerns to the government. In a number of cases, it has been settled that this right is connected to the freedom of expression since assembling and petitioning the government for redress is a form of expression.

Hence, it can be said that the same limits imposed on the freedom of expression clause in the First Amendment can be applied to the freedom to peaceably assemble and petition the government. In the exercise of this right, the assembly must not be tainted with any form of violence which could bring undue injury to the public. So also, in petitioning the government for redress of their grievances, the same must be for valid grounds and must not amount to seditious acts. Otherwise, the same shall fall outside the scope of the First Amendment and will not merit any protection under the law.

In the last analysis, it appears that the fundamental rights of religion, speech and peaceful assembly, although guaranteed by the First Amendment, cannot be exercised without limits. Said rights, while promoting the democratic character of our nation, must necessarily be regulated in order to avoid dissension among the citizens and in order to prevent undue injury.

A certain level of restriction is necessary for the purpose of making sure that the exercise of said rights is done in furtherance of the objectives of the Constitution—promote peace, order and unity in the society, and not to create conflict and injustice within the State. If said freedoms are accorded without any form of regulation, abuse cannot be avoided, and hence, the very instruments formulated to further public interest can even cause the frustration of said interests.

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