Five Freedoms Timeline

English barons force King John to sign the Magna Carta, the first acknowledgment that a monarch’s power is not absolute.

The Mayflower Compact forms the Plymouth Colony and establishes a temporary government based on a social contract and equality of law.

In England, the Petition of Right, enacted in part to reestablish the principles of the Magna Carta, prohibits monarchs from arresting people unlawfully and housing troops in private homes without the owners’ consent.

Banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony, Roger Williams founds Rhode Island, a colony with no established church.

The Massachusetts General Court drafts the first broad statement of American liberties, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties. The document includes a right to petition and a statement about due process.

The Maryland Assembly passes the Act of Toleration, which grants religious freedom to Protestants and Catholics.

Thomas Hobbes pens Leviathan and espouses the theory of the social contract, which suggests that fundamental moral laws are necessary in order to preserve peace.

King Charles II grants Rhode Island a royal charter that protects religious liberty in the colony.

British Parliament passes the Act of Toleration, which guarantees that Protestant dissenters “shall not be prosecuted in any ecclesiastical court for or by reason of their non-conforming to the Church of England.”

John Locke publishes Two Treatises of Government. It provides the philosophical basis for George Mason’s proposed Article Sixteen of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, which deals with religion. Mason’s proposal provides that “all Men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.”


Connecticut passes the first dissenter statute and allows “full liberty of worship” to Anglicans and Baptists.

The first of Cato’s letters is published in England.

New York publisher John Peter Zenger goes on trial for criticizing the royal governor of New York in print and wins acquittal. His trial establishes the principle that truth is a defense to libel and that a jury may determine whether a publication is defamatory or seditious.

The colony of Virginia jails fifty Baptist worshipers for preaching ideas that run contrary to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Eighteen Baptists are jailed in Massachusetts for refusing to pay taxes that support the Congregational church.

Virginia’s House of Burgesses passes the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the first bill of rights to be included in a state constitution in America.

On July 4, the Continental Congress adopts the final draft of the Declaration of Independence.

The Virginia legislature passes the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776. The Anglican Church is disestablished in Virginia.

The U.S. Constitution is ratified and sent to the states for final approval.

Originally published in New York newspapers as The Federalist and widely reprinted in newspapers throughout the U.S., The Federalist Papers are a unique collection of 85 essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay urging ratification of the Constitution. In Federalist No. 84, Alexander Hamilton writes on the subject of the liberty of the press, declaring that “the liberty of the press shall be inviolably preserved.”

The National Assembly of France adopts the Declaration of Rights of Man, which declares, in part, that “[m]en are born and remain free and equal in rights.”

The U.S. Congress approves the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

On December 15, Virginia becomes the required eleventh state to approve the Bill of Rights.


During Tennessee’s constitutional convention, Andrew Jackson opposes, and plays a prominent role in defeating, a proposal requiring a profession of faith by all officeholders.

President John Adams oversees the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts which, in part, make it illegal to “write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.”

The U.S. Congress allows the Sedition Act of 1798 to expire. President Thomas Jefferson pardons all persons convicted under the act.

The U.S. Congress passes the Indian Removal Act. The act forces thousands of Native Americans to relocate west of the Mississippi River.

John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, writes a public plea for justice regarding the treatment of Native Americans.

Nat Turner leads a slave revolt in Virginia. Fifty-five whites are killed before the attackers are captured.

The U.S. House of Representatives adopts the first in a series of gag rules that prevent antislavery petitions from being officially received. The House does not repeal the rule until 1844.

Abolitionist newspaperman Elijah Lovejoy is murdered by proslavery activists.

Petitions from citizens in northeast states, including one group from Washington County, New York, are sent to Congress demanding that laws be passed to deny citizenship to Roman Catholics.

The Women’s Rights Convention, the first public meeting to advocate for women’s rights, passes the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions.

In People v. Hall, the California Supreme Court declares that “Chinese and other people non-white” may not testify against whites.

John Stuart Mill publishes the essay On Liberty, and expands John Milton’s argument that free speech and the unfettered search for knowledge supports the truth.

General Ulysses S. Grant issues General Order No. 12, expelling all Jews from the region of the South under his control. Almost immediately, President Lincoln rescinds the order.

General Ambrose Burnside of the Union Army orders the suspension of the publication of the Chicago Times. President Abraham Lincoln rescinds Burnside’s order three days later.

President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, which declares all slaves from states that seceded from the Union to be free. Slavery would not officially be abolished, however, until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

President Lincoln gives the Gettysburg Address, telling his audience “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


By order of President Lincoln, Gen. John A. Dix, a Union commander, suppresses the New York Journal of Commerce and the New York World and arrests the newspapers’ editors after both papers publish a forged presidential proclamation purporting to order another draft of 400,000 men. Lincoln withdraws the order to arrest the editors and the papers resume publication two days later.

General Robert E. Lee surrenders to Union troops, ending the Civil War.
The Black Codes, state laws designed to restrict the newly won freedom of African Americans, are passed in states across the South.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, guaranteeing in part that no state may “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, extending the vote to former slaves, and denying abridgement of the right to vote on the basis of race.


Anti-obscenity reformer Anthony Comstock successfully lobbies Congress to pass the Comstock Law. This is the first comprehensive anti-obscenity statute enacted at the federal level. The law targets the “Trade in and Circulation of, obscene literature and Articles for immoral use” and makes it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd or lascivious” materials or any information or “any article or thing” related to contraception or abortion through the mail.

In Reynolds v. United States, the first U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with religious liberty, the Court upholds congressional laws banning polygamy.

In the state of Colorado, women gain the right to vote.

Under the leadership of Jacob Coxey, thousands of unemployed Americans head to Washington to protest working conditions.

President Grover Cleveland orders U.S. troops to break up an American Railway Union strike.

In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Louisiana statute mandating segregation on trains, and establishes the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

President William McKinley is assassinated by an anarchist in Buffalo, New York. By 1920, thirty-six of the nation’s forty-eight states adopt laws outlawing sedition and criminal anarchy.

President Teddy Roosevelt sends a message around the world via the first Pacific cable.

Susan B. Anthony co-founds, with Carrie Chapman Catt, the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or “Wobblies,” are founded. The group aims to give a voice to all “working stiffs” that had been excluded by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was formed in 1886.

The Niagara Movement, led by W. E. B. Dubois and twenty-nine other civic leaders, drafts a manifesto calling for full manhood suffrage, and proclaiming: “We are men! We want to be treated as men. And we shall win.” The movement is a forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Upton Sinclair publishes The Jungle, an exposé of the meat packing industry in Chicago. As a result of the book, President Roosevelt signs the Meat Inspection Act.

In Patterson v. Colorado — its first free press case — the U.S. Supreme Court determines it does not have jurisdiction to review the “contempt” conviction of U.S. senator and Denver newspaper publisher Thomas Patterson based on articles and a cartoon that criticized the state supreme court.

American suffragists open their campaign in New York City.

In Adair v. United States, the United States Supreme Court declares union strikes and boycotts unconstitutional.

The U.S. Congress passes the Espionage Act, making it a crime “to willfully cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States.”

The Civil Liberties Bureau, a forerunner of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is formed to oppose the Espionage Act.

The U.S. Congress passes the Sedition Act, which forbids spoken or printed criticism of the U.S. government, the Constitution, or the flag.

In the opinion from Schenck v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. sets forth his clear-and-present-danger test for constitutional suppression of speech, using the now-commonplace example of falsely crying “fire” in a crowded theater.

In Debs v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the conviction of socialist and Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, under the Espionage Act, for making speeches opposing World War I.

The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the convictions of five individuals charged with violating the Espionage Act in Abrams v. United States. The individuals had circulated pamphlets critical of the U.S. government and its involvement in World War I. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writes that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas – that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” This passage forms the foundation of the “marketplace of ideas” theory of the First Amendment.

Thousands of alleged radicals are arrested in raids across the country. The raids reflect the growing American fear of communism.

The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is passed, guaranteeing women the right to vote.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is founded.

The U.S. Congress repeals the Sedition Act of 1918.

The U.S. Post Office burns copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses on grounds of obscenity.

In Gitlow v. New York, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Benjamin Gitlow’s conviction for criminal anarchy. It also concludes that the free speech clause of the First Amendment applies to the states through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In the so-called Monkey Trial, teacher John Thomas Scopes is found guilty of violating Tennessee House Bill No. 185, a law that prohibits the teaching of evolution in public schools.

H.L. Mencken is arrested for distributing copies of American Mercury. Censorship groups in Boston contend the periodical is obscene.


The U.S. Supreme Court upholds California’s criminal-syndicalism law in Whitney v. California. Justice Louis Brandeis writes in his concurring opinion a passage that becomes a fundamental First Amendment principle: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

In People of State of New York ex rel. Bryan v. Zimmerman, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a New York law that mandates that organizations requiring their members to take oaths file certain organizational documents with the secretary of state.

In Stromberg v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the state court conviction of a nineteen-year-old female member of the Young Communist League, who violated a state law prohibiting the display of a red flag as “an emblem of opposition to the United States government.”

In Near v. Minnesota, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates a permanent injunction against the publisher of the newspaper the Saturday Press. The Court concludes that the primary aim of the First Amendment is to prevent prior restraints of the press.

In May, jobless veterans begin arriving in the nation’s capital. Calling themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Forces,” they demand the early payment of a bonus Congress had promised them for their service in World War I. The army eventually disperses the veterans, and Herbert Hoover issues a press release announcing his instructions to the attorney general to investigate the situation.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt pardons all those convicted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1918.

California repeals its Red Flag Law, ruled unconstitutional in Stromberg.

A number of Jehovah’s Witness children, including Billy and Lillian Gobitas, are expelled from school for refusing to participate in a flag salute ceremony at school.

In DeJonge v. Oregon, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the conviction of an individual for participating in a Communist Party political meeting. The Court rules that “peaceable assembly for lawful discussion cannot be made a crime. The holding of meetings for peaceable political action cannot be proscribed.”

Life magazine is banned in the United States for publishing pictures from the public health film, “The Birth of a Baby.”

In honor of its sesquicentennial, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut finally ratify the Bill of Rights.

In N.L.R.B. v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court rules that sit-down strikes are a violation of property rights.

Congress passes the Alien Registration Act, also known as the Smith Act, which makes it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the government.

In Thornhill v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down an Alabama law prohibiting loitering and picketing “without a just cause or legal excuse” near businesses.

In Cantwell v. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court holds for the first time that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment makes the free exercise clause of the First Amendment applicable to the states.

In Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that public schools may compel students to participate in the flag salute.

Congress authorizes President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create the Office of Censorship.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, authorizing the internment of more than110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom are American citizens.

In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the U.S. Supreme Court determines “fighting words” are not a protected form of speech under the First Amendment.

In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a West Virginia law requiring students to salute the flag violates the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and free exercise of religion.

In National Broadcasting Co. v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court states that no one has a First Amendment right to a radio license or to monopolize a radio frequency.

The U.S. Congress creates the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to investigate disloyalty and subversive organizations.

In Everson v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a state program that reimburses parents for money spent transporting their children to all schools, including parochial schools. The Court also rules that the establishment clause of the First Amendment applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.

President Harry Truman mandates that all federal employees must take an oath of loyalty to the United States, and sanctions investigations of all government employees.

The United Nations drafts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In part it states that a belief in the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

In Terminiello v. Chicago, the U.S. Supreme Court limits the scope of the “fighting words” doctrine. Justice William O. Douglas’s opinion states that the “function of free speech … is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

Eleven leaders of the U.S. Communist Party are convicted and jailed.

The Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran-Wood Act, forces members of the American Communist Party to register with the attorney general, and makes it illegal to conceal one’s membership in the Communist Party or other like-minded organizations.

Senator Joe McCarthy claims he has a list of Communists who are secretly working in the U.S. State Department.

U.S. Congress passes the McCarran Internal Security Act, requiring all Communists and Communist organizations to register with the federal government. The act passes despite a veto from President Truman, who says it “would make a mockery of our Bill of Rights.”

In Dennis v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the convictions of twelve Communist Party members convicted under the Smith Act of 1940. The Court finds that the Smith Act is not in undue conflict with the First Amendment.

California adds section 3 to Article Twenty of the California constitution, creating a loyalty oath and communist renouncement pledge for all state employees.

President Truman seizes steel mills to prevent a 600,000-person strike led by John Lewis, chairman of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

In Burstyn v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court, for the first time, finds that motion pictures are included within the free-speech and free-press guaranty of the First Amendment.

In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the doctrine of separate but equal is unconstitutional, ending segregation in public education.

The U.S. Congress adds the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, as a counter to the ‘godlessness’ of communist nations.

The U.S. Senate passes Resolution 301, censuring Senator Joe McCarthy for “bring[ing] the Senate into dishonor and disrepute, obstruct[ing] the constitutional processes of the Senate, and impair[ing] its dignity.”

African Americans protest the segregated bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, after Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white passenger.

In Roth v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court determines that “obscenity is not within the area of constitutionally protected speech or press.” The Court defines obscenity as “material which deals with sex in a manner appealing to prurient interest.”

In NAACP v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court allows the NAACP of Alabama to withhold its membership list from Alabama lawmakers. The Court cites the NAACP members’ rights of association.

In Barenblatt v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the conviction of a college professor who refuses, on First Amendment grounds, to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Four students stage a sit-in protest at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Before long, similar protests occur across the South.

In Engel v. Vitale, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a state-composed, nondenominational prayer violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

James Meredith, an African American, attempts to integrate the University of Mississippi. Riots ensue as a result.

In Sherbert v. Verner, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that a South Carolina policy denying unemployment compensation to a Seventh Day Adventist refusing to work on Saturdays is in violation of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Alabama Governor George Wallace stands on the steps at the University of Alabama to prevent the entrance of students.

Speaking to more than 200,000 people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

In New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns a libel judgment against the New York Times. The Court rules that public officials may not recover damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to their conduct unless they prove the statement was made with actual malice.

The U.S. Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, banning discrimination on the base of race, color, or national origin.

The U.S. Congress passes the Voting Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination in voting on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

Cesar Chavez and others present a petition — the Plan of Delano — outlining the struggle of Latino migrant laborers not as a simple union-management conflict, but as la causa, an awakening of Mexican Americans to their ethnic heritage and rights of citizenship.

In Memoirs v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates a Massachusetts court decision that had found the 1749 book, A Woman of Pleasure (also known as Fanny Hill), obscene. Justice William Brennan writes that a book that possesses the requisite prurient appeal to be declared obscene cannot be banned unless it is found to be utterly without redeeming social value.

In Elfbrant v. Russell, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates an Arizona statute requiring the dismissal of any state employee who knowingly becomes a member of the Communist Party or any party whose intentions include overthrowing the U.S. government.

In Sheppard v. Maxwell, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the murder conviction of Dr. Sam Sheppard because the trial judge failed to quell publicity surrounding the trial.

The U.S. Congress passes The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), making government information more accessible to the public.

In New York City, 350,000 Americans protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In Washington, D.C., 55,000 protesters are held back from the Pentagon by troops with fixed bayonets.

In Keyishian v. Board of Regents, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates a New York law prohibiting the employment of public school and university teachers who belonged or had belonged to “subversive” groups such as the Communist Party. The Court emphasizes the importance of academic freedom, writing: “Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned.”

In United States v. O’Brien, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the conviction of an antiwar protester accused of publicly destroying his draft card. David O’Brien unsuccessfully claims that burning the cards was an act of “symbolic speech” that is protected by the First Amendment.

In Epperson v. Arkansas, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates an Arkansas statute prohibiting public school teachers from teaching evolution. The Court finds that the statute violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court rules that school board officials violated the First Amendment rights of Illinois public school teacher Marvin Pickering, who was fired for writing a letter critical of the school administration to a local newspaper.

Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots break out in 125 cities across 29 states. Not long afterward, Democratic Presidential candidate and United States senator Robert Kennedy is also shot and killed.

Outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, city police fight with protesters. The nation watches the conflict on their television screens.

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the suspension of students for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War violates the students’ First Amendment rights. Justice Abe Fortas writes that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that speech advocating the use of force or crime is not protected if the advocacy is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and/or the advocacy is “likely to incite or produce such action.”

Nearly 700,000 antiwar demonstrators march in Washington, D.C. It is the largest protest in American history.

Four student protesters are shot and killed by members of the U.S. National Guard on the campus of Kent State University.

In New York Times v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court allows the newspaper to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers. The Court holds that the central purpose of the First Amendment is to “prohibit the widespread practice of governmental suppression of embarrassing information.” The case establishes that the press has almost absolute immunity from prepublication restraints.

In Cohen v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the breach-of-peace conviction of an individual who wore a jacket with the words “F— the Draft” into a courthouse. The Court concludes that offensive and profane speech is protected by the First Amendment.

In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the U.S. Supreme Court uses a three-part test to determine that a governmental action does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The test specifies that (1) the action must have a secular purpose; (2) its primary effect must neither advance nor inhibit religion; and (3) there must be no excessive government entanglement with religion

In Branzburg v. Hayes, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the First Amendment does not exempt reporters from being required to testify in court.

In Wisconsin v. Yoder, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the state of Wisconsin cannot require Amish children to attend school beyond the eighth grade, because to do so would violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

In Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that owners of a shopping center may bar antiwar activists from distributing leaflets at the center. The Court finds that citizens do not have a First Amendment right to express themselves on privately owned property.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) passes through Congress but is defeated in the states. The amendment would have guaranteed that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied … on account of sex.”


The U.S. Supreme Court in Miller v. California defines the test for determining if speech is obscene: (1) whether the “average person applying contemporary community standards” would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (3) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

In Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates a state law requiring newspapers to give free reply space to political candidates that the newspapers criticize.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee votes for three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. Later in the year, Nixon resigns.

In Buckley v. Valeo, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that certain provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1976, which limits expenditures to political campaigns, violate the First Amendment.

In Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the public has a First Amendment right to the free flow of truthful information about lawful commercial activities.

In Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates a gag order imposed on the press. The Court writes that “prior restraints on speech and publication are the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.”

In NSPA v. Skokie, the Illinois Supreme Court rules that the National Socialist Party of America (NSPA), a neo-Nazi group, may stage a public march through the town of Skokie, Illinois, despite the town’s high percentage of Holocaust survivors.

The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the power of the FCC to regulate indecent speech broadcast over the air. In FCC v. Pacifica, the Court allows FCC regulation because the broadcast media are a “uniquely pervasive presence” and easily accessible to children. The Court, however, does make clear that, although the government can constitutionally regulate indecent speech in the broadcast media, it does not have power to enforce a total ban on such speech.

In Board of Education v. Pico, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that school officials may not remove books from school libraries simply because they disagree with the ideas contained in the books.

The U.S. Congress passes the Equal Access Act, prohibiting secondary schools that receive federal financial assistance from denying equal access to student groups on the basis of religious, political, or philosophical beliefs, or because of the content of their speech.

In Wallace v. Jaffree, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates an Alabama law authorizing a one-minute silent period at the start of each school day “for meditation or voluntary prayer.” The Court finds that the law was enacted to endorse religion, a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

In Bethel School District v. Fraser, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that the First Amendment does not prevent a school district from disciplining a high school student for giving a lewd speech at a school assembly.

In Edwards v. Aquillard, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates a Louisiana statute that bars the teaching of evolution in public schools unless the teaching is accompanied by instruction about creationism.

In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that school officials may exercise editorial control over the content of school-sponsored student publications if they do so in a way that is reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.

More than two hundred national leaders, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, sign the Williamsburg Charter, a call for a reaffirmation of the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.

Congress passes the Flag Protection Act. The act punishes anyone who “knowingly mutilates, defaces, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon any U.S. flag.”

In Texas v. Johnson, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that burning the American flag is a constitutionally protected form of free speech.

The Communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapse, the Berlin Wall is torn down, and the Soviet Union disintegrates as a result.

In United States v. Eichman, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates the Flag Protection Act of 1989, which had made it a crime to “knowingly mutilate, deface, physically defile, burn, maintain on the floor or ground, or trample upon any U.S. flag.”

In Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Equal Access Act is constitutional.

In Employment Division v. Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that “the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes … conduct that his religion prescribes.”

The Bill of Rights celebrates its two hundredth anniversary.

In Lee v. Weisman, the U.S. Supreme Court determines that an administrative policy allowing religious invocations at public high school graduation ceremonies is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

In R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a Minnesota hate-speech statute violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

In Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the establishment clause of the First Amendment is not subverted when a public school district provides a sign language interpreter to a deaf student attending a parochial school within the district’s boundaries.

The U.S. Congress passes the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in an attempt to strengthen the free exercise rights of all Americans. The U.S. Supreme Court rules the act unconstitutional in 1997.

In Rosenberger v. Rectors of the University of Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a university policy denying funds to a Christian student newspaper is unconstitutional on free speech and establishment clause grounds.

In Board of Educ. of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a 1989 New York law creating a separate school district for a small religious village violates the establishment clause.

The U.S. Congress enacts the Communications Decency Act, which, in part, makes it a crime to put adult-oriented material on the Internet where a child may find it.

In Reno v. ACLU, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Communications Decency Act is unconstitutional. The Court concludes that the act is too vague and tramples on the free speech rights of adults.

In City of Boerne v. Flores, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) unconstitutional as it applied to the states.

The U.S. Congress enacts the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which attaches federal criminal liability to the online transmission for commercial purposes of material considered harmful to minors. Challengers attack the law on First Amendment grounds, and a federal appeals court upholds a lower court injunction against COPA in June 1999.

In National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a federal statute requiring the NEA to consider general standards of decency before awarding grant monies to artists does not infringe on First Amendment rights.

President Bill Clinton instructs the U.S. Department of Education to send consensus guidelines on student religious expression to every public school in the country.

In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that forcing the Boy Scouts to accept a gay scoutmaster is a violation of the private organization’s freedom of association as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

In Mitchell v. Helms, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that a federal program allowing states to lend educational material and equipment to both public and private schools does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a school district’s policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) to provide stronger protection for religious freedom in land-use and prison contexts.

The U.S. Congress passes the USA Patriot Act in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The act and related executive orders spark a new national debate about government power and civil liberties in a time of national emergency.

In Simmons v. Zelman-Harris, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a voucher program in Cleveland, Ohio, that includes religious schools does not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.


The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the Children’s Internet Protection Act in United States v. American Library Association, Inc. The law requires public libraries and public schools to install filtering software on computers to receive federal funding.

The U.S. Supreme Court dismisses the Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow case, reversing a lower court decision that teacher-led recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional.

In Locke v. Davey, the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the Ninth Circuit ruling that the Promise Scholarship program violated Joshua Davey’s free-exercise rights. In a seven-to-two decision, the majority found that Washington State’s constitutional prohibition against providing money for religion did not interfere with the federal free exercise rights of individuals.

The U.S. Supreme Court upholds a lower court’s preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act. The Court reasons in Ashcroft v. ACLU II that “filtering software is an alternative that is less restrictive than COPA, and, in addition, likely more effective as a means of restricting children’s access to materials harmful to them.”

In Cutter v. Wilkinson, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upholds the constitutionality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which requires state prisons to accommodate inmates’ religions.

In Van Orden v. Perry, the U.S. Supreme Court affirms the lower court decision and rules that the establishment clause allows the capitol building in Austin, Texas, to display a Ten Commandments granite monument because of the Commandments’ nature and the nation’s history. In a separate Ten Commandment display case, McCreary County v. ACLU, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Ten Commandment display does violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, because of the plainly religious purpose behind placing them on the courthouse walls.

In Garcetti v. Ceballos, the U.S. Supreme Court curtails the free-speech rights of public employees, ruling that “when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”


In Morse v. Frederick, the U.S. Supreme Court rules principal Deborah Morse did not violate the First Amendment rights of high school student Joseph Frederick when she punished him for displaying a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner on a public street directly across from his school while the Winter Olympic Torch Relay passed through Juneau, Alaska.