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Pop Quiz: How Well Do You Know the First Amendment?

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

It's easy to assume that the Bill of Rights are listed in order of importance. That's not quite right; they instead are listed in the same order as the sections of the Constitution that they would have modified had they been part of the original document. No one Constitutional Amendment is more important than any other. This doesn't change the fact that by many standards, the First Amendment confers some of the most important rights Americans have.

But a recent survey found that one only 1 in 20 U.S. adults can name all five freedoms protected by the First Amendment. So, we've come up with a little pop quiz for you to refresh your memory of this powerful old sentence. (Spoiler alert: the answers follow directly after each question. If you need a little help before taking it, you can read the text of the First Amendment in FindLaw's U.S. Constitution section.)

Question 1. How many rights are conferred by the First Amendment?

Five distinct rights are encompassed in the First Amendment. You might be familiar with two of them — religion and speech — since they're the most commonly cited.

The Freedom of Religion: This protects individuals' rights to practice any religion, or, just as importantly, to practice no religion at all. It establishes a clear separation between church and state, prohibiting the government from favoring or establishing an official religion (known as the Establishment Clause). This freedom safeguards your right to peacefully practice or express your religious belief both privately and publicly. It keeps public schools from requiring students to pray or learn about a certain religion.

The Freedom of Speech: Also referred to as the freedom of "expression," this guarantees individuals the right to express their thoughts, opinions, and ideas without government censorship or punishment. This fundamental right encompasses spoken, written, and symbolic forms of expression, including political speech, artistic expression, and even dissenting or controversial viewpoints. It serves as a cornerstone of American democracy, fostering open discourse, the exchange of ideas, and the protection of individual liberties.

The freedoms of religion and speech may be the popular girls of the First Amendment, but like the Plastics in "Mean Girls", they often get in catfights. One common example is when the Establishment Clause butts heads with freedom of expression.

But what about the other clauses of the First Amendment? They're lesser known, but arguably just as important. These latter three rights kind of go together in spirit as aiming to protect a democratic society.

Question 2. What are the other three rights under the First Amendment?

Press, assembly, and petition. Let's give them their five seconds of fame:

  1. Freedom of the Press: This right is unique in that it's specific to journalists and the media. It gives them the right to report without public censorship or other governmental interference. The spirit of this is to bolster democracy by serving as a check on government power, ensuring transparency of government action while holding public officials accountable for their actions. It also facilitates open discourse by the public and allows people to be informed enough to disagree with the government (which are other freedoms in the same amendment).
  2. Freedom of Assembly: This allows people to gather, associate, and peacefully express their views and even criticisms of the government without interference or fear of repercussions. This right promotes democracy by enabling people to engage in political activism by organizing and engaging in discourse.
  3. Right to Petition the Government: This grants people the right to address grievances directly to the government. It allows them to submit requests, complaints, or demands for redress without fear of negative consequences. This right provides a vital mechanism for people to participate in the democratic process by engaging with the government and seeking remedies for injustices.

Read more articles about the rights of noncitizens, such as Permanent Resident Rights, on FindLaw's immigration law resource pages.

Question 3. Does the First Amendment freedom of speech mean I can say whatever I want?

If you're in the U.S., there's a lot you can get away with saying. You can typically use swear words or profanity in public, even in front of minors. A few states, like Georgia, might have local laws prohibiting that, and while those laws might be subject to a Constitutional challenge, they've been enforced in the past. You can also, in many circumstances, curse at a cop or walk around a state fair with a "F**k the Police" T-shirt. Of course, that doesn't mean you can threaten the police (or anyone else) without consequences.

Also keep in mind that the First Amendment doesn't mean you can swear whenever, however, and wherever you want. The freedom of speech does not provide an unrestricted right to say anything, anywhere, at any time. SCOTUS has long held that the government can impose reasonable "time, place, and manner restrictions" on speech if the restrictions serve "legitimate government interests."

For example, have you ever wondered why you don't hear curse words on the radio or public broadcast television? The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates broadcasting, enforces rules that restrict the use of explicit language and content during certain hours when children are more likely to be in the audience. And even though this regulation has been legally challenged, it's been determined that these rules do not violate the First Amendment. SCOTUS has upheld the FCC's authority to regulate indecent content on the airwaves, stating that the government has a "legitimate interest" in regulating it.

In our Constitution section, you can read more about the obscenity exception and other exceptions to the First Amendment rights, such as exceptions for "fighting words," speech advocating illegal conduct, and child pornography.

Question 4. Do you have to be a U.S. citizen to be protected by First Amendment rights?

Not usually, but the answer is not totally straightforward. Technically, the text of the amendment itself does not distinguish citizens from noncitizens. It talks about the rights of "the people," which would seem to encompass everybody on American soil. And for the most part, in most situations that will come up in day-to-day life, even noncitizens are generally protected by the First Amendment freedoms (along with most other freedoms in the Bill of Rights).

However, while the First Amendment applies broadly on its face, its historical application by courts and Congress has shown that there are more limitations for noncitizens in specific circumstances. Cases where the Supreme Court has diluted First Amendment protections have usually involved issues of national security, immigration, or other "compelling government interests." The application of the First Amendment and other Constitutional rights to noncitizens can get tricky and continues to be debated.

This quiz was just the tip of the iceberg into the rather complex part of the Bill of Rights which is the First Amendment. For more information about these and other Constitutional amendments that serve as the cornerstone of American freedom, check out the Related Resources below.

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