By Jeffrey Johnson, Contributor
The First Amendment states, “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.”
While most people agree about what the amendment is saying in theory, in practice, there are large disagreements about the five essential rights and where they apply.
Religion is probably the most complex right in the first amendment because it has two parts, the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. The establishment clause prohibits both the federal government and the state governments from establishing a religion; in other words, the US can’t say that any religion is the official religion of the United States. The free exercise clause stops the government from telling you what religious practices you can partake in. There are a few exceptions to this though. The supreme court decided in Reynolds v United States that the government can regulate religious practices that would be a national security issue.
In the United States, we can say basically anything we want without the government getting involved, no matter how bad or unpopular it might be. Private businesses and individuals can obviously call you out for speech they don’t like, but the government cannot punish you for it. The only time that government can punish you is if you defame someone or directly call for violence against someone.
The constitution permits a “free press,” and as long as the press isn’t defaming a person, releasing illegally obtained government secrets, or things that threaten our national security, the press is free free to publish whatever it wants.
The federal government cannot regulate assembly at all. This is where you need to research the state laws and city ordinances. While they can’t tell you what you are and aren’t allowed to protest, you do have to be careful where and when you do it. Most places require licenses to assemble in certain areas. As long as your protest is peaceful, the government can’t stop your protest, even if they might not like what you are standing for or against.
You are free to petition the government. In other words, you can force the government to listen to what you have to say. The best way to do this on the federal level is going to the official website to petition the White House. Each state has ways to petition, but it varies by state.