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Reflection of the First Amendment

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Introduction

The first amendment was the first major enactment in the constitution of the United States that guaranteed the freedom of expression to all Americans. The amendment prohibited the United States congress from coming up with laws that prohibited the free exercise of individual religious belief, infringe on the individual freedom of speech,  limits individual right to assemble freely, or limits individual right to petition  the government  in order to get redress for grievance. The amendment specifies our rights in different aspects including our belief, religious ideologies, and our freedom of expression. The first amendment assert that individuals right of expression cannot be denied through the action of  any private or public institution, enactment of  law, political pressure or any of other factor. This amendment therefore guaranteed individual freedom of expression in their everyday interaction with other people and with authority.

Application of the First amendment

Any constitution enactment is poised to stand the test of time in order to understand its applicability. An enactment will be considered relevant to the governance of the country when it is applied in various cases. In order to reflect on the application of this amendment we are going to review some cases where the amendment has been used to decide various cases.

(i) Wisconsin v. Yoder

There are several cases which we can review to really understand the application of the first amendment. The first aspect of the amendment which we can assess pertains to the 1972 case of Wisconsin v. Yoder. This case looked into the matter of the state’s pursuit of charges against several parents and leaders within the Wisconsin Amish communities for failing to abide the compulsory education standards for all youths living in the state. This case clearly showed how statute laws would sometime come into conflict with some of the provision. In this specific case, religious freedom which was guaranteed in the first amendment would come to be tried in face of compulsory education for youths.
In the case of Wisconsin v. Yoder, the defendants were pursued for withdrawing their children from public education after their eighth grade. The defendants made the argument that Mennonite law, which is a religious law, prohibits children from attending public high school. The traditions followed by community had a different formative path after their children reaches adolescence. Therefore, in light of the patter of adolescent education in Amish society and the provision that had been made in the new amendment and the prevailing constitutional law on youth education, it is clear that there was a possible conflict on constitution interpretation.

Thus, in the resolution which produced a 7-0 vote with two abstentions, the Court ruled that individual’s interests in the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment outweighed the State’s interest in compelling school attendance for the Amish youths after their eighth grade. In the majority opinion by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, the Court found that the values and programs of secondary school were in sharp conflict with the fundamental mode of life as mandated by the Amish religion. (OYES, 1) The resolution which was delivered by the bench shows a religious conflict between the some aspects of the Amish religious beliefs with the state requirement for compulsory high school education for all youths. However the benefits that youths are likely to get from attending high school education as provide by the laws could not outweigh the costs of individual violation of their culture.  The principles behind this ruling therefore assert that superiority of individual expression of their religious beliefs over the state provision for compulsory education. There would be more benefits toning to culture and religious provisions that attaining high school education.

These considerations can be taken very specific to the provisions of the Amish culture.  However, there are two implications to this case which are more generally applicable and which concern our appreciation of the First Amendment, and more specifically, of the freedom of expression clause. Firs, we find that the considerations we have made are putting the expression of our religious beliefs over the state laws on the need for public education.

Second, we find that with reference e to the U.S. constitution, this decision by the Supreme Court prioritize the freedom of expression above the laws and regulation of the state. This shows that that the state is more committed to enforcement of individual freedom of expression as provided in the first amendment. This shows state recognition of the importance and prioritization of the protection as has been provided in the amendment even in cases where the provisions are in conflict with the laws of the land.
 (ii) New York Times Co. v. United States (1971)

The late 1960s and early 1970s can be considered as a time of dramatic change in the interpretation of governance and the relationship between the public and its federal representation. There were many events happening like the raging War in Vietnam, which showed that the presidency could not longer be trusted with the duty of representing the interests of the whole public. The presidency was becoming too powerful as can be illustrated by Richard Nixon’s secret conducts which defined an era of disastrous misappropriation of executive power vested in the presidency. The press also became very aggressive in reference to the first amendment which had given it the freedom to report without bias all matters with public interest.

The press had taken to its duties and entitlements with increased vigilance in the face of the continuing war in Southeast Asia. Suspecting increased military policy and secretive use of public office, the New York Times and Washington Post both gained access to the so-called Pentagon Papers, which provided information from within the government concerning policy approaches and tactics in the war. The exposure of the Pentagon Paper and the government policy on the war, there would be further uproar to President Nixon and his government concerning its faulty policies pursued in the course of the war. The information from the Pentagon Paper as exposed by the press played an important role in the course of the war as it gave the federal government to intervene in the course of the war and understand the policies pursed by Nixon.

Upon its intervention, the United States federal government contended that publication of the Pentagon Papers could prolong the Vietnam War and hinder efforts to return U.S. prisoners held in Vietnam. The New York Times and the Washington Post claimed that the government was engaging in Censorship. (Farlax, 1) It is from this proceeding that the term “prior restraint” was adopted to express the way in which the government was trying to infringe into the freedom of the media.  The term was used to refer to the attempt by the United States government to curb the freedom of the press to report information to the public in exercise of the freedom of expression as provided in the amendment. The “prior restraint” of the press was justified for security reasons. Since then this concept of prior restraint has become important in the political arena with the increase technology which has enabled the spread of information. This means that any action which happens in any part of the globe whether perpetrated by that particular nation or not is likely to attract a lot of media reporting domestically.

In many ways, the case would be an extremely complex exploration of several aspects of the First Amendment. In this case, the issue of the freedom of the press as provided in the first amendment was a great factor.  However there was also the issue of federal government’s right to intervene in instances of attempts to exercise free speech or report to the public on the activities of the public office. This Supreme Court was intertwined with different legal aspect with different political ideologies. In the Pentagon Papers case a divided Supreme Court refused to enjoin publication of the Pentagon Papers, emphasizing that there was First Amendments presumption against any prior restraint on free speech. The justices’ reasons for their decisions varied widely but there a general agreement that the First amendment provided for freedom of media that could not be restrained by political ideology.  (Farlax, 1)

This vote reflected the position that any use of prior restraint with respect to free speech was inherently a clear violation of the First Amendment. (Farlax, 1) Some of the bench argued that only in instances of extreme specificity where a threat to national security can be reflected in revealing something such as troop positions and movements or weaponry and direct tactical maneuvering, could prior restraint be considered a viable option. In this case, no such specific threat was identified, with the implicit recognition that the government had sought the intervention for political reasons. Again the ruling showed the effectiveness of the constitution and judicial system in protecting against the power of its own elected officials from restraining the right of the public to expression and information.
(iii) Schenck v. United States (1919)

The 1919 case of Schenck v. United States concerned the circulation of printed materials by the former secretary for a domestic socialist party, Schenck and the injunction and prosecution of the distributor of these materials by the United States. Schenck was held responsible for the distribution of materials inciting the obstruction of the draft of soldiers by men who had specifically been enlisted for service in the on-going war in Europe. His efforts were meant to oppose the ongoing war.

Schenck has used the United States government for its injunction on his right to express his political belief in the printed context as was provided in the first amendment. He put up his defense on a number of grounds in reference to the provision of the First Amendment. However it was considered that Schenck political orientation in the social party would inherently make it difficult for him to raise a defense for his case. It was presumed that the Supreme Court would nullify his please considering his political orientation in view of the war.  Within the context of both the war and the inherent unpopularity of the socialist party in American culture and political orientation, Schenck’s speech was at much on trial for its content as for its nature.

This presumption was reflected very well in the ruling delivered by the Supreme Court. In consideration of the opinion published that had been reached  by the bench Justice Holmes, delivered the ruling on behalf of the bench saying, “We admit that, in many places and in ordinary times, the defendants, in saying all that was said in the circular, would have been within their constitutional rights. But the character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done” (Boston College, 1)

This ruling asserts the earlier assumption that had been made in this paper regarding the conduct and political orientation of Schenck. The bench acknowledged that, though the curtailing of political expression is generally not acceptable in the context of the First Amendments protections, the intention of the message in question had to be evaluated with scrutiny in the context of the war and the national security concerns of the government.

This raised many question regarding the level of protections afforded to the expression of political freedoms in the face of extraordinary times. Moreover, the case would dictate a willingness of the court to rule against the First Amendment in instances where it could be demonstrated that there was intent and potential to incite behavior on a widespread level which could be said to constitute a threat to national security or a subversion of the public or governmental interests. Again, this ruling showed a limitation of the expression of individual freedom of expression in political context.

As Justice Holmes argued in broader application to the First Amendment, the question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. This argument by Holmes bring about the right t expression ones opinion but with a restriction of the content of the expression based on its implications. In other words, it brings about a question of proximity and degree or the content of the message, its implications, and the magnitude of its implications. When a nation is at war, many things that might be said in time of peace can turn out to be a hindrance to its effort and their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight. The wide implication of the ruling also showed that there is no Court which can regard such utterances as protected by any constitutional right as provided in the first amendment. (Boston College, 1)

Referring to the counter-First Amendment cliché concerning the prohibition against falsely shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre, the justice would determine that where the government could assess a determination of that which can  benefit the public has been challenged to a dangerous degree, it could intervene and prevent such speech. This is a case with serious political implications beyond that which it would seek to imply about the changing nature in application of the First Amendment.

Conclusion

The first amendment was enacted in order to give freedom of expression to individuals. This amendment was meant to ensure that individuals could express their religious and politic belief without fear of restriction from the state. The validity and compatibility of a law enactment comes only when it is applied in various cases. This ensures that the enactment is in line with various constitution interpretations. However, the cases we have reviewed so far shows that there were serious issue with the first amendments especially when it comes to application of the law in line with the existing constitution laws. There are various issues regarding the   extent of application of first amendment in regard to the power of state and the content of message that individual expresses to the public. As it comes out from the few cases reviewed, there are limitations to which individuals can express their freedom of speech. Therefore we can say that although the first amendment provides for individual expression of freedom of speech, religion, assembly and petitioning of the government, there have been many limitations in   its interpretation. In the future we expected there will be many other challenges.

Works Cited:
Boston College. (1919). Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47. The Supreme Court of the United States. Online at http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/comm/free_speech/schenck.html

Farlex. (1971). New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713. The Supreme Court of the United States. Online at http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/New+York+Times+Co.+v.+United+States

OYEZ. (1972). Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 2005. The Supreme Court of the United States. Online at http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1971/1971_70_110/

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