The Modern First Amendment

January 4, 1985

Report Outline
A Crowded Schedule
Expanded Freedoms
The Future Docket

A Crowded Schedule

Record Number of Supreme Court Cases

Like a suit of medieval armor being modified to fit a modern man, the First Amendment has undergone remarkable expansion in recent years. Its language is unchanged since its adoption in 1791. Now, as then, in the days of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares that: “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.”

A literal reading of the amendment restricts its reach to the national government. But since 1925, when the Supreme Court first declared that the amendment applied to state as well as federal activities, federal courts—the U.S. Supreme Court in particular—have accepted almost every opportunity to enlarge its guarantees for the freedoms of belief and expression. Despite criticism to the contrary, the expansion has continued even as the court has grown more conservative during the 15 years Warren E. Burger has been chief justice.

Encouraged by this expansionist thrust, citizens are invoking their First Amendment rights in more and more innovative ways. In its 1984–85 term alone, the Supreme Court is considering First Amendment cases involving political action committees, gay teachers, legal defense funds, religious students, ambitious attorneys, irate citizens, magazines, newsletter publishers and young men who refuse to register for the draft.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Apr. 16, 2004  Broadcast Indecency
Mar. 28, 2003  Movie Ratings
Nov. 17, 1995  Sex, Violence and the Media
Feb. 19, 1993  School Censorship
Dec. 20, 1991  The Obscenity Debate
Dec. 07, 1990  Does Cable TV Need More Regulation?
May 16, 1986  Pornography
Jan. 04, 1985  The Modern First Amendment
Oct. 19, 1979  Pornography Business Upsurge
Mar. 09, 1979  Broadcasting's Deregulated Future
Mar. 21, 1973  Pornography Control
May 17, 1972  Violence in the Media
Jan. 21, 1970  First Amendment and Mass Media
Jul. 05, 1967  Prosecution and the Press
Jun. 28, 1961  Peacetime Censorship
Apr. 12, 1961  Censorship of Movies and TV
Dec. 23, 1959  Regulation of Television
Jul. 29, 1959  Control of Obscenity
Jul. 27, 1955  Bad Influences on Youth
Mar. 21, 1952  Policing the Comics
Apr. 12, 1950  Censorship of Motion Pictures
Sep. 20, 1939  Censorship of Press and Radio
Civil Rights and Civil Liberty Issues
Freedom of Speech and Press
Supreme Court History and Decisions