Ask the average American which rights are guaranteed by The First Amendment, and the answer may surprise you. The one everyone gets is freedom of speech. Some might add freedom of religion and freedom of the press; fewer still, surprisingly, will name the right to peacefully assemble, and even less will recall the right to petition the government. In fact, in a 2019 Freedom Forum Institute study, only 4% of those surveyed could name four protected rights, and shockingly, only 1% of respondents could name all five.
Least known among participants, but more important for Americans, is the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” In ten words, James Madison preserved the right to challenge the government, and ensured future generations could always enjoy First Amendment protections. As demonstrations against racial injustice continue nationwide, it’s important to recognize the brave individuals who stood up to authoritative lawmakers’ attempts to silence political dissent, so that we can freely protest today:
Watts v. United States. At a 1966 rally, discussing police brutality, Watts replied to a heckler’s suggestion that he get an education before expressing an opinion saying, “They always holler at us to get an education. And now I have already received my draft classifications… I am not going. If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L. B. J." Watts was subsequently convicted under a statute punishing threats against the President, which the Supreme Court reversed in a per curiam opinion. Distinguishing between a true threat and political expression, the court explained that, given the context, Watts’s political hyperbole was “pure speech” and absolutely protected, no matter how crude or offensive his statements may have seemed to those present.
Texas v. Johnson. At a demonstration against the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Gregory Lee Johnson doused an American flag in kerosene and set it ablaze. Though no one present was physically injured, several later testified to taking serious offense, and Johnson was convicted for violating a Texas law against the desecration of a venerated object. Speaking for the majority, Justice Brennan explained that though the State’s motive was to avoid unrest, the First Amendment right to free speech was intended to invite dispute, and that, as the trial indicated, Johnson’s actions clearly achieved that First Amendment goal.
Because of Watts, Johnson, and other brave activists exercising the right to petition the government to redress grievances, free expression and protest are not only permitted in America, but also encouraged. To explore more about pivotal moments which shaped the First Amendment, watch Lawline’s CLE course Hate Speech and the First Amendment: Where Are the Boundaries?, where Ameer Benno examines the history of - and exceptions to - First Amendment protections, and check out the rest of Lawline’s Constitutional Law offerings at any time through our free trial.
This article was prepared with help from Max J. Cheslow, a Seton Hall Law student.