Freedom of Speech
“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington
The right to freely speak and publish newspapers, pamphlets, and other documents was critical during the founding and remains a core principle of the United States today. The texts on this page contain early arguments for protections of free speech, documents from the founding era, and more recent legal developments on the rights of speech and press. Learn more about the First Amendment protections of speech and press in the JMC First Amendment Explorer.
Before the Constitutional Convention
This letter, published under a pseudonym in British newspapers, is one in a series written by two English journalists that harshly criticized the British government. The letters became popular in the United States among colonists who felt the Crown was governing unjustly. This letter specifically defends the right of free speech and denounces governments that deny that right as tyrannical.
Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack from 1732 – 1758. It was widely read throughout the colonies and contained weather predictions, poems, advice and proverbs, and other scientific observations. This poem, published in the 1757 edition of the Almanack, conveys the necessity of free press and how it promotes truth, art, and freedom.
A few months before the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Thomas Jefferson wrote this letter to Edward Carrington from Paris. Jefferson believes the only safeguard against a tyrannical government is a well-informed citizenry and one way to inform the citizenry is to ensure the wide distribution of newspapers. Interestingly, Jefferson changes his view of newspapers, but not the right of free press, quite significantly 20 years later, according to this letter.
After Ratification of the Bill of Rights
Shortly after the Bill of Rights was ratified, Madison wrote this short piece for the National Gazette, claiming that “public opinion sets bounds to every government, and is the real sovereign in every free one.” Madison understood the power of public opinion and believed that, in order for a large republic to remain free, the public needed to be well-informed.
The Sedition Act of 1798 was the first legislative challenge to free speech in the United States. It was publicly unpopular, and James Madison and Thomas Jefferson authored the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions to dispute the law. The Sedition Act set a precedent, though, for the government to infringe on rights to free speech and press in times of war in the future.
Joseph Story was an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1812 – 1845. His Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States is an authoritative account of early American history and the development and provisions of the Constitution. This excerpt focuses on the freedom of speech and press clauses of the First Amendment.
Though the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, much of the significant jurisprudence on the free speech clause of the First Amendment did not occur until the twentieth century. The three cases below are among the landmark decisions handed down by the Supreme Court relating to free speech. Schenck and Gitlow involve speech that threatens violence and Texas takes up the issue of desecrating the American flag.
In this article, Geoffrey R. Stone highlights landmark free speech decisions and explains how the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment developed throughout the 1900s.
What Can I Say in School?: An Examination of Students’ Freedom of Speech
National Constitution Center
Norman Rockwell, Freedom of Speech: Know It When You See It?
First Amendment: Speech
National Constitution Center