Supreme Court Cases Regarding the First Amendment

The first amendment to The Constitution states, “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.” The Supreme Court uses these words as a guide in determining the validity of state and local laws in cases regarding the freedoms of religion and expression.

  • Reynolds v. United States – (1878) The court determined that “religious duty” was not a suitable defense to criminal charges. In this case, a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints was charged with bigamy.
  • Debs v. United States – (1919) Socialist Eugene Debs was convicted for attempting to disrupt recruitment. The court upheld the conviction under the Espionage Act.
  • Whitney v. California – (1927) Communist Anita Whitney was convicted for establishing the Communist Labor Party, which advocated the violent overthrow of the US government. The Court supported the conviction and declared that “bad intentions” can be punished. (Overruled by Brandenburg v. Ohio 1969)
  • Stromberg v. California – (1931) The Court determined that the displaying of a red flag was protected by the first amendment.
  • Lovell v. Griffin – (1938) The Court ruled that the city of Griffin, Georgia had no right to make an ordinance that someone had to seek governmental permission to distribute religious pamphlets.
  • Thornhill v. Alabama – (1940) Peaceful picketing to advertise a labor dispute was determined to be protected by the first amendment.
  • West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette - (1943) It was determined that the rights of students were violated when their school insisted they salute the flag.
  • Thomas v. Collins – (1945) A Texas law prohibiting labor organizers from recruiting members without permission was ruled unconstitutional
  • Kovacs v. Cooper – (1949) The Court said that a city does have the right to regulate sound trucks and other instruments that produce “loud and raucous noises”.
  • Beauharnais v. Illinois – (1952) An Illinois law prohibiting the distribution of racist pamphlets was upheld as constitutional.
  • NAACP v. Alabama – (1958) The Court struck down an Alabama law that required the NAACP to provide the names and addresses of all of their members.
  • Barenblatt v. United States – (1959) Barenblatt’s conviction for contempt of Congress was upheld when the Court ruled that the House Un-American Activities Committee had the authority to compel him to answer questions about his Communist membership.
  • Torcaso v. Watkins – (1961) Maryland’s requirement that office holders declare a belief in the existence of God was ruled unconstitutional.
  • Sherbert v. Verner – (1963) A Seventh Day Adventist was denied unemployment compensation after being fired for refusing to work on the Sabbath. The Court decided that her rights had been violated.
  • United States v. O'Brien (1968) The Court ruled that the burning of draft cards for anti-war protest was not protected by the first amendment.
  • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) The Court sided with two students who had been suspended from their school for wearing black arm bands in anti-war protest.
  • Brandenberg v. Ohio – (1969) A KKK leader’s speech, which included a threat of vengeance on the President, was protected by the first amendment, because it must be proven that the danger advocated in the speech is real and not imaginary.
  • The New York Times Co. v. United States – (1971) The United States did not have the right to stop the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing certain classified material.
  • Lemon v. Kurtzman – (1971) Statutes in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island that allowed state supplemental funding of parochial schools was deemed unconstitutional as it violated the separation of church and state.
  • Kleindienst v. Mandel - (1972) The Court ruled that the Attorney General had the right to refuse entry to a foreign scholar, despite the desire of those who invited him to hear his speech.
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder – (1972) Amish parents declined to send their children to school after eighth grade due to religious reasons, therefore Wisconsin’s compulsory education law violated their religious freedom rights.
  • Paris Adult Theater v. Slaton - (1973) The Court decided that hard core pornography was not protected by the first amendment and communities had the right to regulate it.
  • Gertz v. Welch – (1974) The Court decided that a private person only has to show fault and not actual malice in order to recover damages for libel, even if the defamatory comments discuss a public issue.
  • Bigelow v. Virginia – (1975) As long as an ad contains factual information, is of public interest, and advertises legal goods and services, it is protected by the first amendment.
  • Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc. – (1976) A pharmacist has the right to provide information on the prices of prescription drugs.
  • Time, Inc v. Firestone – (1976) During the Firestone divorce scandal, Time published an article about Mary Firestone’s affairs, despite lack of evidence. The court ruled that Mary was not a public person, so she could recover libel damages.
  • Wooley v. Maynard – (1977) The State of New Hampshire could not prosecute citizens for covering the “Live Free or Die” motto on the state license plate, if the slogan is repugnant to their beliefs.
  • Zurcher v. Stanford Daily – (1978) A student newspaper was searched by police who believed that they had pictures related to a student protest. The court ruled that the warrants and the search were valid.
  • First Bank of Boston v. Bellotti – (1978) Corporations have a right to make contributions in an attempt to influence the political process.
  • Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica – (1978) A complaint to the FCC about a televised George Carlin routine, led to this case and the decision that gave the FCC broad leeway in regulating televised content.
  • Central Hudson Gas and Electric v. Public Service Commission – (1980) A law completely banning the utility company from advertising the promotion of electricity was deemed unconstitutional.
  • Bolger v. Youngs Drug Products Corporation – (1983) The Court supported commercial free speech for a company that mailed pamphlets advertising contraception and discussing venereal disease treatments.
  • Roberts v. US Jaycees - (1984) It was determined that a Minnesota requirement that the Jaycees accept women into their organization was constitutional.
  • City of Renton v. Playtime Theaters Inc. – (1985) The Court supported the right of Renton to prohibit adult theaters from being located 10,000 feet from buildings like schools and churches.
  • Bethel School District v. Fraser – (1986) The Court decided that the school district had the right to discipline a student for lewd or obscene speech.
  • Hustler Magazine v. Falwell – (1988) The first amendment protects the right of a publication to parody a public figure.
  • Employment Division v. Smith – (1988) States may accommodate illegal activities even if they are in the pursuit of religious activities, but they are not required to.
  • Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier - (1988) School had the right to censor stories from a school-sponsored student newspaper.
  • Edwards v. Aguillard – (1987) The Court ruled unconstitutional a Louisiana law that stated that evolution could only be taught in classrooms if “creation science” was taught with it.
  • Texas v. Johnson – (1989) It was decided that burning the flag was an expression protected by the first amendment.
  • Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. – (1990) The Court decided that a separate opinion privilege does not exist against libel charges.
  • Lee v. Weisman – (1991) It was determined that the invitation of a clergy member to give a benediction at a public school graduation was not a violation of the first amendment.
  • Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah – (1993) The Court found unconstitutional a Florida law that prohibited animal sacrifice in a religious ritual.
  • National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley – (1998) The government does not have to subsidize artwork that it considers indecent and decency standards may be considered when assigning grants.
  • Bartnicki v. Vopper – (2001) Media outlets can not be held liable for broadcasting material acquired illegally by a third party.

("Legal information found on this page does not constitute legal advice.")

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