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The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from legislating various laws. These include, but not limited to: impeding the exercise of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, restricting the right to peacefully assemble, or prohibiting the right to petition for a governmental redress of grievances.

Among one of ten amendments within the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment was put forth on December 15, 1791. It’s original interpretation was far more narrow than today, making First Amendment issues among the most complicated within the American judicial system. One of the most prominent First Amendment case was Near v. Minnesota, 238 U.S. 697 (1931) where the midwestern state filed a permanent injunction, or gag law, against a man for publishing an Anti-semitic newspaper that was considered a “public nuisance.” The defendant argued that this violated his First Amendment right of free speech and press. In the end, the Constitution favored Near, saying that censorship is almost always unconstitutional unless the information threatens national security.   

Other cases such as Cohen v. California, where a man was charged for disturbing the peace for wearing a “Fuck the Draft” jacket, or Snyder v. Phelps, when the Westboro Baptist Church protested a U.S. soldier’s funeral, illustrates that the First Amendment is ever evolving in its interpretation, but nonetheless is at the base of all communications law.

The first amendment also clearly applies to artistic expression, even film, regardless of its indirect outcomes. In Byers v. Edmondson, plaintiffs suing on behalf of the victims of violent crimes included Oliver Stone as a defendant because his film Natural Born Killers may have inspired the real life crime. Although the case was considered a valid one, it was decided that because there was no proof that Stone intended to incite violence, his film was protected speech.

SOURCE: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution and individual case analyses summaries.

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April 25, 2016

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Lindsay Maizland

American University

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