Freedom of Speech, Press & Assembly: Definition, Importance & Limitations

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  • 0:01 Freedom of Speech,…
  • 1:19 Freedom of Speech
  • 5:07 Freedom of the Press
  • 6:34 Freedom of Assembly
  • 8:13 Importance
  • 8:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Williams

Jennifer has taught various courses in U.S. Government, Criminal Law, Business, Public Administration and Ethics and has an MPA and a JD.

In this lesson, we will learn about the freedom of speech, press and assembly. We will take a closer look at the rationale behind these freedoms and the specific clauses of freedom of speech, press and assembly and what they mean to society today.

Freedom of Speech, Press and Assembly

The freedom of speech, press, and assembly is defined as the general freedom of the individual and the press to gather together freely and express opinions. These rights first began when the settlers first came over to the United States from Europe and created the original British colonies. British speech regulations were severe, and criticizing the government was a crime. It became important for these settlers, and those that came after them, to be able to speak out publicly regarding their political opinions freely and without fear of retaliation. Out of these concerns arose the importance of the freedom of speech, press, and assembly.

These clauses are encompassed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It represents that, 'Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.' These freedoms, included within the First Amendment, are applied to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Freedom of Speech

The freedom of speech is defined as the free flow of information, ideas, and opinions in our society. It is this free flow that makes our country democratic. When our government attempts to regulate our speech, it is the job of the court to determine if the government's reason outweighs the importance of our democratic freedoms. The courts have shown that the content, or what we are actually saying, is more likely to be protected from government regulation than conduct, or what we are doing during the speech.

Specifically, for the government to regulate the content of a speech, it would have to be shown that the regulation was necessary to serve a compelling state interest and is narrowly drawn to achieve that end. An example of this would be if the state of Ohio were to make a law requiring that proceeds of books that criminals write about their crimes be held in a trust for five years to pay back victims of the crimes.

What would this do to the criminal's right to tell their story - to their right of free speech? Would this prevent them from writing the book in the first place? This would violate the criminal's right to freedom of speech because the importance of victims being paid back restitution is not compelling enough of a state interest that it would outweigh the criminal's First Amendment freedom of speech. An example of speech content that would not be protected would be if that same criminal were to publish in their books obscene photos of minor children. This type of content is typically not protected.

As much as the government is hard-pressed to regulate the content of what we want to say, they're also hard-pressed to make us say anything at all! The First Amendment freedom of speech allows us to express our opinions freely and not express them at all. Courts have ruled that the state cannot force school children to salute flags or say a pledge to our flag.

With regards to conduct, the court has given our government more discretion in regulating the conduct that occurs during speech rather than speech itself. The government may adopt time, place, and manner regulations. These can be defined as regulations that dictate the time, place, and manner in which an individual may conduct speech. These regulations must be narrowly, or specifically, drawn to achieve an important government interest.

A time, place, and manner regulation that a demonstration may not be held in a hospital zone would be an example of a regulation that would be upheld. What horrible things could happen if a few hundred people were demonstrating outside of a hospital? Would EMTs be able to arrive in ambulances timely? Would the doctors be able to get into the building to do their jobs? We can see why a regulation of this sort makes sense and would be upheld.

An example of a time, place, and manner regulation that would not be upheld would be a state regulation prohibiting an individual from burning a U.S. flag. This behavior, done in the proper place and manner, is not likely to dangerously disturb the peace in most cases, so the conduct would be protected.

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