Disagree with a new law in your town? You can speak up about it. Worship differently than your friends? You have the right to follow any faith you choose or none at all. Want the latest scoop? Read articles from as many news outlets as you like—or start your own.
We sometimes take these rights for granted, but our nation’s founders did not. Even as they signed the Constitution in 1787, some of the Framers worried that the document didn’t guarantee Americans’ individual freedoms. They wanted to be sure that the new government they’d created didn’t overstep its bounds.
So James Madison, who had been the primary author of the Constitution, wrote the Bill of Rights. Ratified in 1791, the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights protect key individual liberties, such as freedom from unreasonable searches and the right to public trials. The first one on the list, however, is arguably the most vital.
The First Amendment establishes Americans’ freedom of speech, religion, and the press, as well as the right to assemble peacefully and to petition the government for change (see full text, above). It’s just 45 words—the text fits inside a single tweet—yet the First Amendment gives Americans incredible power, says Catherine Ross, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University.
“Freedom of expression is the engine oil that makes democracies function,” says Ross. “It gives us the right to criticize the powerful, to demand change, and to learn what is going on in our society so we can organize for political action and be informed voters.”
First Amendment freedoms are for all Americans, but the rules sometimes differ for young people—especially in public schools, which are considered an extension of the government. Here’s a look at how First Amendment rights really play out in your lives.