Recent Riots are Not Protected by the First Amendment

Written by Susan James

There has been a lot of discussion of late regarding the First Amendment and what it entails. According to the Constitution, the First Amendment may be summarized by the following according to the Legal Information Institute.

  • The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. It prohibits any laws that establish a national religion, impede the exercise of religion, abridge the free exercise of religion, infringe of the press, interfere with the right to peaceably assemble, or prohibit citizens from petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.
  • It was adopted into the Bill of Rights in 1791. The Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection afforded to these rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. Furthermore, the Court has interpreted to Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting the rights in the First Amendment from interference by state governments.

Unfortunately, many people are confused and misinterpret the meaning of the amendment. They fail to accurately understand this basic right and form inaccurate opinions, as well as violent behavior.

Another test may be applied to this content-neutral legislation. The Supreme Court has also recognized that government my prohibit some speech that may cause a breach of the peace or cause violence.

“Fighting Words” were first defined by the Supreme Court in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1951), as words that inflict injury or intend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. Thus, fighting words are a category of speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment.

In Feiner v. People of the State of New York (1951), the Supreme Court held that akin to the fighting words doctrine, an incitement to riot which creates a clear and present danger is also not protected by the First Amendment. According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition), the definition of riot is: a violent public disorder, a tumultuous disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons assembled together and acting with a common intent.

Lately, we have experienced “riots” under the guise of “peaceful protests.” However, when American citizens are hunted down by large groups, assaulted with various weapons, and have their neighborhoods and businesses burned, they become afraid and feel unsafe in their own communities. This is not only a shame, but criminal activity that is certainly not protected by the First Amendment.

Protesters may speak their mind, but so can others—safely and without fear of retaliation. America is a free country and all may speak—no one should be able to take that away from anyone.


Photo by Chad Davis via Flickr