The Five Freedoms

More so than any other part of the U.S. Constitution of Bill of Rights, the five freedoms of the First Amendment embody what is most sacred about America’s historic commitment to create a free and responsible society. Yet a recent national study funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation suggests our schools are leaving the First Amendment behind.

 Religious Liberty

Since 1791, the first sixteen words of the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — have enshrined religious liberty as a fundamental, inalienable right for all human beings.

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With the right to freedom of speech comes responsibility: the responsibility to be respectful in how we speak, and the responsibility to protect others’ right to freedom of speech, regardless of whether we agree or are interested in what they are saying. And, something we forget or frequently misunderstand, the First Amendment does not guarantee the right to not be offended.

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Without a free and vigorous press to keep government honest and guarantee the free flow of information, open societies cannot flourish. As the great journalist Edward R. Murrow once wrote, “a nation of sheep begets a government of wolves.”

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Over the course of our history, the right to assemble peaceably has protected all sorts of individuals and viewpoints. Suffragettes, union workers, civil rights advocates, anti-war activists and Ku Klux Klan members have all taken to the streets and sidewalks to make themselves seen and heard.

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The last of the First Amendment’s five freedoms, the right to petition is, in many ways, the chief procedural means Americans have for making their desires known. It guarantees our right to ask government at any level to right a wrong or correct a problem.

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