In the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, which have become known as the Bill of Rights, the powers of the federal government are both clarified and limited. Over the centuries, many people have argued that the First Amendment is the most important of the ten. There are numerous reasons to support this opinion. It vests substantial power in the people, not just government officials. It also lays out a number of issues which are significant both separately and in combination.
The full text of the amendment reads:
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.
The amendment begins by establishing a limit on the legislative power of Congress, stating specifically that it cannot interfere with religious freedom. The “establishment of religion” means, in part, the creation of an official church. This clause means that the United States—unlike England—would not have a state religion. The corollary is that Americans would have religious freedom.
The next three parts are very tightly linked. Freedom of speech and assembly are also closely connected to freedom of religion. People not only have the right to their beliefs, but they can speak about them in public, and they can do so in groups in public places. These freedoms apply to all aspects of society, not just religion.
Furthermore, beyond believing, speaking out, and getting together, these diverse beliefs can be put into writing and published. While we often associate “freedom of the press” with journalism, it applies to all forms of publicly produced writing. This freedom shields critics of the government.
The idea of criticizing the government is also closely connected to the last freedom guaranteed: to petition the government. This freedom is a crucial part of the Bill of Rights because it codifies the flexibility of the Constitution and the governing process. Americans can not only speak out and write about their complaints, they can contact their representatives and initiate the process of changing an aspect of government that they think is wrong or has been inappropriately applied.