CRS Annotated Constitution
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Adoption and the Common Law Background
Madison’s version of the speech and press clauses, introduced in the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789, provided: “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”1 The special committee rewrote the language to some extent, adding other provisions from Madison’s draft, to make it read: “The freedom of speech and of the press, and the right of the people peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good, and to apply to the Government for redress of grievances, shall not be infringed.”2 In this form it went to the Senate, which rewrote it to read: “That Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”3 Subsequently, the religion clauses and these clauses were combined by the Senate.4 The final language was agreed upon in conference.
Debate in the House is unenlightening with regard to the meaning the Members ascribed to the speech and press clause and there is no record of debate in the Senate.5 In the course of debate, Madison warned against the dangers which would arise “from discussing and proposing abstract propositions, of which the judgment may not be convinced. I venture to say, that if we confine ourselves to an enumeration of simple, acknowledged principles, the ratification will meet with but little difficulty.”6 That the “simple, acknowledged principles” embodied in the First Amendment have occasioned controversy without end both in the courts and out should alert one to the difficulties latent in such spare language. Insofar as there is likely to have been a consensus, it was no doubt the common law view as expressed by Blackstone. “The liberty of the[p.1021]press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity. To subject the press to the restrictive power of a licenser, as was formerly done, both before and since the Revolution, is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controverted points in learning, religion and government. But to punish as the law does at present any dangerous or offensive writings, which, when published, shall on a fair and impartial trial be adjudged of a pernicious tendency, is necessary for the preservation of peace and good order, of government and religion, the only solid foundations of civil liberty. Thus, the will of individuals is still left free: the abuse only of that free will is the object of legal punishment. Neither is any restraint hereby laid upon freedom of thought or inquiry; liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive to the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects.”7
Whatever the general unanimity on this proposition at the time of the proposal of and ratification of the First Amendment,8 [p.1022]it appears that there emerged in the course of the Jeffersonian counterattack on the Sedition Act9 and the use by the Adams Administration of the Act to prosecute its political opponents,10 something of a libertarian theory of freedom of speech and press,11 which, however much the Jeffersonians may have departed from it upon assuming power,12 was to blossom into the theory undergirding Supreme Court First Amendment jurisprudence in modern times. Full acceptance of the theory that the Amendment operates not only to bar most prior restraints of expression but subsequent punishment of all but a narrow range of expression, in political discourse and indeed in all fields of expression, dates from a quite recent period, although the Court’s movement toward that position began in its consideration of limitations on speech and press in the period following World War I.13 Thus, in 1907, Justice Holmes[p.1023]could observe that even if the Fourteenth Amendment embodied prohibitions similar to the First Amendment, “still we should be far from the conclusion that the plaintiff in error would have us reach. In the first place, the main purpose of such constitutional provisions is ‘to prevent all such previous restraints upon publications as had been practiced by other governments,’ and they do not prevent the subsequent punishment of such as may be deemed contrary to the public welfare . . . . The preliminary freedom extends as well to the false as to the true; the subsequent punishment may extend as well to the true as to the false. This was the law of criminal libel apart from statute in most cases, if not in all.”14 But as Justice Holmes also observed, “[t]here is no constitutional right to have all general propositions of law once adopted remain unchanged.”15
But in Schenck v. United States,16 the first of the post–World War I cases to reach the Court, Justice Holmes, in the opinion of the Court, while upholding convictions for violating the Espionage Act by attempting to cause insubordination in the military service by circulation of leaflets, suggested First Amendment restraints on subsequent punishment as well as prior restraint. “It well may be[p.1024]that the prohibition of laws abridging the freedom of speech is not confined to previous restraints although to prevent them may have been the main purpose . . . . We admit that in many places and in ordinary times the defendants in saying all that was said in the circular would have been within their constitutional rights. But the character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done. The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. . . . The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.” Justice Holmes along with Justice Brandeis soon went into dissent in their views that the majority of the Court was misapplying the legal standards thus expressed to uphold suppression of speech which offered no threat of danger to organized institutions.17 But it was with the Court’s assumption that the Fourteenth Amendment restrained the power of the States to suppress speech and press that the doctrines developed.18 At first, Holmes and Brandeis remained in dissent, but in Fiske v. Kansas,19 the Court sustained a First Amendment type of claim in a state case, and in Stromberg v. California,20 a state law was voided on grounds of its interference with free speech.21 State common law was also voided, the Court in an opinion by Justice Black asserting that the First Amendment enlarged protections for speech, press, and religion beyond those enjoyed under English common law.22 Development over the years since has been uneven, but by 1964 the Court could say with unanimity: “we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide–open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and[p.1025]sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”23 And in 1969, it was said that the cases “have fashioned the principle that the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”24 This development and its myriad applications are elaborated in the following sections.
Freedom of Expression: The Philosophical Basis
Probably no other provision of the Constitution has given rise to so many different views with respect to its underlying philosophical foundations, and hence proper interpretive framework, as has the guarantee of freedom of expression—the free speech and free press clauses.25 The argument has been fought out among the commentators. “The outstanding fact about the First Amendment today is that the Supreme Court has never developed any comprehensive theory of what that constitutional guarantee means and how it should be applied in concrete cases.”26 Some of the commentators argue in behalf of a complex of values, none of which by itself is sufficient to support a broad–based protection of freedom of expression.27 Others would limit the basis of the First Amendment to one only among a constellation of possible values and would[p.1026]therefore limit coverage or degree of protection of the speech and press clauses. For example, one school of thought believes that, because of the constitutional commitment to free self–government, only political speech is within the core protected area,28 although some commentators tend to define more broadly the concept of “political” than one might suppose from the word alone. Others recur to the writings of Milton and Mill and argue that protecting speech, even speech in error, is necessary to the eventual ascertainment of the truth, through conflict of ideas in the marketplace, a view skeptical of our ability to ever know the truth.29 A broader–grounded view is variously expounded by scholars who argue that freedom of expression is necessary to promote individual self–fulfillment, such as the concept that when speech is freely chosen by the speaker to persuade others it defines and expresses the “self,” promotes his liberty,30 or the concept of “self– realization,” the belief that free speech enables the individual to develop his powers and abilities and to make and influence decisions regarding his destiny.31 The literature is enormous and no doubt the Justices as well as the larger society are influenced by it, and yet the decisions, probably in large part because they are the collective determination of nine individuals, seldom clearly reflect a principled and consistent acceptance of any philosophy.
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