Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The First Amendment and the Supreme Court Essay

The First Amendment and the Supreme Court - Essay Example As phrases can mean different things to different people, the Supreme Court has interpreted this small yet significant passage over the decades in order to specifically define the rights of the citizenry protected by the First Amendment. During World War I, an activist named Schenck composed and mailed thousands of circulars to draftees urging them to peacefully resist conscription. This was interpreted as violating the Espionage Act of 1917, in particular the 'interfering with military or naval operations' provisions.1 Schenck and his supporters believed this was a violation of his First Amendment right to freedom of speech (especially as he did not advocate violence), while the United States government held that he endeavored to cause insubordination in the armed forces during wartime and to hinder recruitment.2 Eventually the case made its way to the Supreme Court. In Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919), decided on 3 March 1919, the court unanimously decided against Schenck. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated famously in the decision that 'the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. It does not even protect a man from an injunction against uttering words that may have all the effect of force'.3 In other words, the First Amendment did not guarantee absolute freedom of speech. Words are not just utterances; they can have great power and cause immense turmoil. According the Court, when he encouraged draftees to subvert the law, Schenck entered the realm of destructive language that was not protected by the First Amendment. There is another interesting concept in this decision, that of relativity, 'a question of proximity and degree'. 4 This is the clear and present danger precedent, and this case established it as a method of analyzing such cases.5 As the United States was at war, the potential for danger was higher-these pamphlets were far more inflammatory at this period than they would have been when the country was at peace. With Americans entrenched in the war effort, the elasticity of what was acceptable and safeguarded by this amendment was not as great as it has been in other times. Naturally, this opinion has been modified and the freedom of speech expanded since 1919, but this relatively early case is an important development in the definition of what is meant by this amendment. Freedom of Press Towards the end of the conflict in Vietnam (never declared an official war by any administration), there was a great deal of criticism concerning American involvement in both the press and populace. In 1971, the New York Times received a copy of the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg, a disillusioned Defense Department economist who secretly copied major sections.6 These classified documents were a 'top-secret history of the United States government's decision-making process regarding the war in Vietnam'.7 After careful consideration, the newspaper began publishing the unappealing details. Quickly, the Attorney General filed an injunction to stop further articles and within two weeks the case was before the Supreme Court. Essentially, the government was seeking prior restraint, to block an action before it took place. Because of

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