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Freedom of Speech in the United States

A Short History

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"If freedom of speech is taken away," George Washington told a group of military officers in 1783, "then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter." The United States has not always preserved free speech (see my illustrated history of American censorship for more on that), but the tradition of free speech has been both reflected in and challenged by centuries of wars, cultural shifts, and legal challenges.

1790

Following the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison secures passage of the Bill of Rights, which includes the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In theory, the First Amendment protects the right to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and the freedom to redress grievances by petition; in practice, its function is largely symbolic until the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Gitlow v. New York (1925).

1798

Upset by critics of his administration, President John Adams successfully pushes for the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Sedition Act, in particular, targets supporters of Thomas Jefferson by restricting criticism that can be made against the president. Jefferson would go on to win the 1800 presidential election anyway, the law expired, and John Adams' Federalist Party never again won the presidency.

1873

The federal Comstock Act of 1873 grants the post office the authority to censor mail containing material that is "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious." The law is used primarily to target information on contraception.

1897

Illinois, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota become the first states to officially ban desecration of the U.S. flag. The Supreme Court would finally find bans on flag desecration unconstitutional nearly a century later, in Texas v. Johnson (1989).

1918

The Sedition Act of 1918 targets anarchists, socialists, and other left-wing activists who opposed U.S. participation in World War I. Its passage, and the general climate of authoritarian law enforcement that surrounded it, marks the closest the United States has ever come to adopting an officially fascist, nationalist model of government.

1940

The Alien Registration Act of 1940 (named the Smith Act after its sponsor, Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia) targeted anyone who advocated that the United States government be overthrown or otherwise replaced (which, just as it had during World War I, usually meant left-wing pacifists) - and also required that all adult non-citizens register with government agencies for monitoring. The Supreme Court later substantially weakened the Smith Act with its 1957 rulings in Yates v. United States and Watkins v. United States.

1942

In Chaplinsky v. United States (1942), the Supreme Court established the "fighting words" doctrine by defining that laws restricting hateful or insulting language, clearly intended to provoke a violent response, do not necessarily violate the First Amendment.

1969

In Tinker v. Des Moines, a case in which students were punished for wearing black armbands in protest against the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court held that public school and university students do receive some First Amendment free speech protection.

1971

The Washington Post begins publishing the Pentagon Papers, a leaked version of the U.S. Defense Department report titled United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967, which revealed dishonest and embarrassing foreign policy blunders on the part of the U.S. government. The government makes several attempts to suppress publication of the document, all of which ultimately fail.

1973

In Miller v. California, the Supreme Court establishes an obscenity standard known as the Miller test.

1978

In FCC v. Pacifica, the Supreme Court grants the Federal Communications Commission the power to fine networks for broadcasting indecent content.

1996

Congress passes the Communications Decency Act, a federal law intended to apply indecency restrictions to the Internet as a criminal law restriction. The Supreme Court strikes down the law a year later in Reno v. ACLU.
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