The First of our Bill of Rights reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Four distinct rights are identified here. This article addresses speech, the press, and assembling.
The last of the four rights listed in the First Amendment is the only one that comes with a condition; peaceably. Otherwise, this named right is pretty straightforward. We can collect en masse for parades, in front of the school board, before our state legislatures, and even in droves on the National Mall to express our preferences or outright displeasure with government actions. You just can’t throw a brick.
The use of the word “petition” here is intended as an appeal or a demand, rather than a list of signatures. The Founding Fathers very evidently valued the opportunity for a gathering of citizens to convey their displeasures directly to the authorities. The Declaration of Independence that they signed listed twenty-seven grievances against King George III. And at the end of their list are the words, “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms.”
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are close cousins, and listed here together – not separated by a semicolon. They can be read as, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech” and, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.” The word “abridge” means to reduce or diminish.
It is important to appreciate that these are specific restrictions on government alone. They are intended as assurances of freedom to both citizens and journalists. No matter the considerations, governments do not have the authority to craft any law that diminishes citizens’ freedom to speak or journalists’ freedom to report.
And as with the freedom of religion, citizens are incapable of violating these First Amendment rights. Even the term censorship only applies to government actors. When newspaper, television or radio strikes out words that they find unsuitable for their subscribers, that is editing. When government performs or compels the editing, that is censorship.