Man preaching outside covenant
meeting, Atlanta, Ga., 1998.

When the Constitution was written in 1787, some feared that it gave too much power to the federal government. Individual freedom was at risk. In response, the Bill of Rights, consisting of the first ten amendments, was added to the Constitution. The First Amendment protected these fundamental freedoms: speech, the press, religion and assembly.

Mayor Fiorello H.
La Guardia looks on
as President Franklin
Delano Roosevelt   signs
a proclamation naming
December 15 as ‘Bill
of Rights Day’ at the
White House, November
28, 1941.

In the 20th century, the First Amendment took on greater importance when the concept of civil liberties was developed and expanded. Shocking acts, such as the burning of the American flag, inflammatory speech or controversial lyrics have challenged the concept of freedom of speech. National security has often been cited as a reason to restrict First Amendment rights. In 1971, the Nixon Administration tried to prevent the publication of Pentagon documents in The New York Times and Washington Post, which gave embarrassing details about the United Statesís escalation of the Vietnam War.

Front of The New York Times, July 1, 1971.
In a major victory for First Amendment rights,
The New York Times published the Pentagon
Papers, secret documents related to the
Vietnam War leaked by State Department
official Daniel Ellsberg.

In the post 9/11 era, many feel that freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment have been endangered, as the threat of terrorism has been used by the government to justify greater restrictions on basic freedoms. The Supreme Court has concluded that there are limits to free speech, and those limits are constantly being redefined. Moreover, while the First Amendment protects people from government censorship, the Constitution does not prohibit censorship in the private sector. More than 200 years after the passage of the Bill of Rights, freedoms granted by the First Amendment continue to be challenged and reinterpreted.


Cover of Public Enemy’s album, “Fear of a Black Planet.” An early hip hop group, Public Enemy created much controversy with their social activism and politically charged lyrics, 1990.