The Right to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the first of the Bill of Rights, says that “Congress shall make no law ... abridging [limiting] 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”. A similar provision is found in the constitutions of many states. Freedom of speech and the press is the fundamental personal right or liberty. Inability to speak and write and publish freely is simply inconsistent with a democracy.

Freedom of speech does not exist in the abstract and no freedom is The Right to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press absolute. Any individual may discuss many things, but if he clearly urges the commission of a crime, he will very likely be charged with a crime: inciting to riot, bringing about or seeking to bring about murder or arson.

Governmental interference with freedom of speech takes several forms. On the one hand there are laws that attempt to control speech or publication before the event. On the other there are laws that impose penalties after the event. The courts will declare unconstitutional both controls and penalties unless they are generally applicable, are specific enough for all The Right to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press to understand and can be justified as an exercise of the police power, which includes the public's right to protect itself from harmful writings. A few examples may be helpful.

A law requiring the preliminary showing of motion pictures to a state (or municipal) licensing board is constitutional if its purpose is only to protect the public from films that are offensive to public morals or accepted standards of decency, but the courts do not hesitate to substitute their judgment for that of the licensing board if they disagree with it.

A particular challenge to the concept of freedom of The Right to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press the press has arisen with the recent increase in the amount of printed matter that would certainly have been classified as obscene and pornographic only a few years ago. In trying to strike a balance between the public's right to read what it chooses and its right to protect itself against material that is offensive by the standards of the community, the courts have been forced to walk a narrow line. Unable to lay down a satisfactory general rule as to what is and what is not obscene, they have found it necessary to examine each case The Right to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press on its merits.

Control of material broadcast by radio or television has not been seriously challenged in the courts. The number of radio frequencies and television channels is limited, and Congress has given the Federal Communications Commission broad powers to supervise what is transmitted by the limited number of broadcasters and telecasters it licenses.

The most troublesome cases involving freedom of speech and press and of assembly, arise from efforts by the national and state governments to protect themselves against frankly revolutionary individuals and groups. In the past few years some openly revolutionary groups have arisen, particularly among blacks and The Right to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press students, calling for violent change or overthrow of our governmental system.

What occupies the attention of the courts in all cases of this kind is the problem of whether the speech in which these groups indulge is likely to lead to illegal action.


1. Grammar and Practice: Conditionals
2. Topic Activities: Administrative Law and Procedure
3. Speaking: Discussion
4. Supplementary reading: Administrative Agencies

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