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First Amendment Law

“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.” Despite the guarantee implicit in the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there have been many attempts in the ensuing two centuries to censor or ban speech, both in print and in other media.

Censorship is at best problematic and at worst dangerous when it tries to silence the voice of the powerless at the behest of the powerful. History has shown that power and influence are not reliable guides for judgment when it comes to information. The Nazi government in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and the governments of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, have shown the world what happens when large, powerful nations choose to deprive their own citizens of knowledge and a voice. In the United States, Americans pride themselves on freedom of speech and freedom of the press—but many of them have experienced censorship. Boards of education frequently try to ban certain books from their school districts; television and radio stations ban certain programming; and newspapers may alter certain stories. The reasons for censorship are numerous, but they all share a common goal: protection. Perhaps children are the most frequently protected group. Books are banned when they depict violence or sexually suggestive material. Motion pictures are rated to protect young people from sex and violence on the screen. Internet resources are filtered to ensure that students will be unable to log into pornographic web sites.

Society, and often the courts, have determined that some information does need to be censored, and that not all media deserve First Amendment protection. Deciding which materials fall into which categories is a subject of ongoing debate.

Inside First Amendment Law