Student Reader

Freedom of Expression

Freedom of expression, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press, provides a right to unrestricted discussion of public affairs, yet these rights have never been absolute. Initially, the First Amendment clauses seemed aimed at preventing prior restraint. As the First Amendment speech doctrines developed, justices argued that speech creating a “clear and present danger” may be limited. “Symbolic speech” and “fighting words” may receive even less protection, though the Supreme Court has ruled that flag burning is a constitutionally protected form of expression. Obscenity—although hard to define—is not protected by the Constitution, and the Court agreed that the government can regulate distribution of obscene materials. Yet, the Court has also affirmed broad latitude for freedom of speech in cyberspace. In 1999, a federal court issued a permanent injunction closing a website of some anti-abortion advocates who threatened doctors performing abortions.

Freedom of the press, including the ability to collect and report information without government interference, is crucial in a free society. Print media defend this freedom as absolute, although electronic media have had to accept some government regulation. Individuals may sue the media for libel, but public figures must show that there is actual malice involved when publishers print false statements about them. Basically, freedom of the press means freedom from prior restraint. The Court has been reluctant to limit freedom of the press in order to ensure a fair trial. However, reporters are not protected from the demands of law enforcement and may be required to reveal their sources. Only in the most extreme and compelling cases has prior restraint been considered justified, as, for example, when publishing certain material might mean nuclear annihilation.

The First Amendment also provides the right to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances. This right has merged with freedom of speech and freedom of the press under the general heading of freedom of expression.

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