HGov: First Amendment Case Study


first-amendment

The First Amendment protects the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights of assembly and to petition the government.

The freedom of religion can be divided into two parts: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment Clause guarantees the separation of church and state. It reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Free Exercise Clause establishes that all people are free to follow the religious practices of their choice. They are also free to follow no religion. If a person’s religious faith conflicts with the law of the land, however, the law must prevail.

The case of Engel v Vitale challenged the recitation of a standard prayer each day in New York’s public schools. In its decision, the Court struck down the practice. State-sponsored prayer in schools was wholly inconsistent with the Establishment.

Jehovah’s Witnesses view pledging allegiance to the flag as a form of idolatry prohibited by the Bible. In West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette, the Court said that Jehovah’s Witnesses could refuse to salute the flag. Their right to do so was protected under their First Amendment rights to religious freedom and free speech.

In Lemon v Kurtzman, using public funds to support private religious schools was unconstitutional. This case established a three-point “Lemon test” to determine if and when a government action violates the Establishment Clause. To be constitutional, a government action must have a secular, or nonreligious, purpose; neither help nor hurt religion; not result in an excessive entanglement of the government and religion.

Freedom of speech is the second right listed in the First Amendment. It acts like an anchor for all the other rights in the amendment, because they are all linked in one way or another to free expression.

In the case of Brandenburg v Ohio, a Ku Klux Klan leader was arrested for giving a speech advocating illegal activities. In its decision, the Court offered a two-part test to determine whether a clear and present danger exists that might justify suppressing free speech. First, such speech has to be directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action. Second, the speech must be likely to incite or produce such action. The Court found that the Klan leader’s speech, though containing hateful statements, was unlikely to produce any unlawful actions.

Gregory Lee Johnson had been arrested in Texas for burning a flag to protest government policies. His actions violated a state law against flag desecration. In Texas v Johnson, the Court concluded that flag burning as an expression of opinion was protected symbolic speech. It said that a state could not prohibit such actions, even if it found them offensive.

Freedom of the press was listed separately in the First Amendment to underscore its importance in a free society. The right to petition the government to solve problems was originally considered the more important of the two. But over time, the right to assemble has taken on a larger role and has been the issue in many cases.

The Near case involved a newspaper that Minnesota officials wanted to shut down. The paper had published articles exposing political corruption. In Near v. Minnesota, the Court declared such attempts at prior restraint to be unconstitutional. The Court declared that a government had no right to call for prior restraint. Keeping information from being published could be allowed only under very special circumstances, such as protecting national security. If officials were worried about possibly libelous articles, they could sue the publisher after the materials were in print.


Homework:
1) Read Chapter 14 pp.445-474
2) Read Chapter 15 pp.481-511

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