First Amendment explained: What are the boundaries in the rights of citizens?

The United States Constitution, written in 1787 and ratified in 1788, includes the first amendment (added in 1791 with the other nine amendments in the Bill of Rights), which guarantees that Americans have the right to five freedoms: speech, religion, assembly, petition, and press.

Freedom of Speech

Beginning shortly after ratification, however, the boundaries of this amendment have been questioned. For example, legally, material labeled as obscene has historically been excluded from First Amendment protection. Examples of what is and is not protected by the First Amendment can be found online from the U.S. Courts here. Deciding what qualifies as obscene has been problematic, even when the amendment was in its drafts. The law relies on universally implied understandings of what is okay and what isn’t, which can result in contradicting positions on certain topics.

These disputes stem from a common factor. The freedoms are only protected on public property. Private property or organizations are a different story. For example, former President Trump is being banned from multiple social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook because he violated the terms that the apps require users to accept. Since social media platforms are private, he is not protected by the First Amendment and can be censored or banned. While many might say it is unconstitutional, it really isn’t. The private companies are fully within their rights to restrict their users for not following their rules.

Freedom of The Press

The second aspect of the amendment is freedom of the press. This amendment protects the truth – but only the truth. False or defamatory statements that are damaging to a person’s reputation and cause monetary loss and/or a decrease in status, also called libel, are not protected by the First Amendment once they are published. That applies to school publication as well, but when associated with a specific religion or set of beliefs, freedom of the press becomes even more limited.

“I like giving students as much freedom of the press, always have,” said Mr. David Mueller, Principal of McNicholas High School. But when it comes to articles about views going against Catholic morality that will be published in a Catholic School newspaper, at the end of the day, the First Amendment does not apply to the student. In the Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier case, a principal at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis Missouri, removed pages published by the students without them knowing. The students brought it to court, and according to the U.S. Courts, “The Court noted that the paper was sponsored by the school and, as such, the school had a legitimate interest in preventing the publication of articles that it deemed inappropriate and that might appear to have the imprimatur of the school.” This set the precedent for the rule of Prior Review, which states that the school, public and private, has the final say as to what is published. As a Catholic school, they have more of a responsibility to intervene in the publication of papers within the school than a public school would.

Freedom of Religion and the Right to Assemble

Another facet of the First Amendment states that the government cannot favor any one religion over another nor can they establish one religion for the entire country. It separates what is known as a connection called the church and state. The fourth aspect of the amendment is the right to protest, petition for change, and assemble for social, economic, religious, and/or social reasons. Although this right is given, the amendment also states that it must be a peaceful gathering. Once violence ensues, those participating are not protected.

Freedom to Petition the Government

The fifth and final part of the amendment partially fits into all of the categories. It’s the right to criticize the government. Whether or not that is through speech, writing, or protest, it’s one’s right for any elected official. This part of the First Amendment is applies to the other parts of it; the freedom of speech and freedom of the press aspects of the document already begin to encompass this right. This part of the amendment, however, makes it official and clearly written instead of just implied.

Private Property vs. Public Property

On public property, citizens are protected at all times by the First Amendment. Private property is a different matter. The First Amendment provides protection for individual liberty from actions by government officials. This is called the state-action doctrine. However, private property is not government-owned. Hence the term “private,” being allowed to legally exclude others from personal and is what makes this type of property different from public property. Restrictions on individuals’ free-speech rights on private property do not involve state action. In Article 5 from the Civil Law and Catholic Education, “The primary law governing church relations with members and employees is contract law, whereas in the public setting it is constitutional law.”

This means that when on private property, people are required to follow the regulations administered by those in charge – which may be different than those made by the federal administration. People risk being removed of the premises or higher consequences if you do not cooperate. The governing document of the property will be the official reference as to what the disciplinary actions taken will be. Should the incident be taken to court, the officials there will also defer to this document to make decisions about the matter.

Private Property and Contract Law

Private property is managed by people other than the government officials. Instead of abiding by constitutional law, individuals on private property are governed by contract law. In McNicholas High School’s case, this is the student handbook. “Most Catholic schools are going to have in their handbook, in their disciplinary section, anything that can damage the reputation of the school is ground for significant discipline, up to and including expulsion,” Mueller said. 

So when students and parents sign the handbook in the beginning of the year that they have read and agree to the terms of the handbook, they are accepting that those are the ground rules that McNick operates under. If a student or teacher were to take an incident to court, the court would see if the school deliberately distorted an application of the school handbook to the person. 

“If you look at our school handbook, and read through the discipline section, you’ll see that there are pretty broad statements that give the school leeway to intervene when there’s going to be something that’s going to harm the reputation of the school or that potentially harms another person or it can disrupt education going on,” Mueller said. “Catholic school administrators generally keep constitutional principles in mind as guidelines, not requirements, guidelines, in order to do the best they can to make sure that they’re fair, and that they’re not abusing their discretion [of disciplinary action].”

Private Property and Social Media

If somebody posted something on social media, off school grounds, on a platform not owned by McNick, about someone that attends the school, constitutional provisions do not apply to them. The school can still enter into that and discipline the student for that. “Here’s the basis for that,” Muller said. “It’s disrupting the school… it’s distracting them from doing what they’re here to do, which is to live in a full stature environment and learn.”

Is the school going to monitor everyone’s social media accounts? No. Are they going to go looking for squabbles online? Of course not. Are they going to enter into every little dispute between students? No. But if someone comes in and reports bullying, harassment, or two people are clearly angry at each other in the hallways, then even though the fighting words have taken place outside of school grounds, McNick will become involved. “Our handbook states that we can,” Mueller said. Accepting the terms of the handbook also means that accepting this part of it too.

If an inconvenience is caused for the owners of private property, they have the right to remove the person or file a lawsuit against them over the matter. The First Amendment prevents a lot of disputes over rights, but it does have its limits. The best way to avoid any trouble is to act responsibly when in public as well as to avoid causing disarray on property that isn’t yours. To even further prevent any incidents, one can refrain from entering the property altogether without permission.

Should you choose to still go on the property, whether or not that be out of necessity for school or for recreation like a party, make sure that you know the terms and conditions you accepted when you stepped foot on the grounds.

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