I could spend the rest of the week writing on the First Amendment, for while I am not an expert, it expresses fundamental legal principles that help make America a special place and I never tire of studying it.
The First Amendment is more familiar than most of the Constitution to the average person. Even your average internet commenter is at least vaguely familiar with the rights to free speech, a free press, and the free exercise of religion. Today I consider one right, that of free speech. But rather than dive into case-law, I ask that you consider that the First Amendment, like all rights, is limited.
Limited, I say? Do I hate Freedom? Am I a Commie? Yes, no, and no. The First Amendment opens boldly: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” Seems pretty clear, right? One would think so. Yet in 1798, the government passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Sedition Act stated in part that it was illegal to, “To write, print, utter or publish, or cause it to be done, or assist in it, any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President…”
That language is not subtle. In 1798, just seven years after the Bill of Rights was ratified, Congress and the President went ahead an abridged the freedom of speech (and speech that was clearly intended for political purposes, and political speech is arguably the most important speech). Fortunately, the Sedition Act expired in 1800, and the next president Thomas Jefferson pardoned those who were still serving Sedition Act sentences. But if there’s any takeaway, it’s that we must always safeguard our rights, for if even those who were involved in the drafting of the Bill of Rights could violate it, nothing should be taken for granted.