Terms You Should Know About Free Speech

Free Speech

Speech without censorship. Freedom of speech, the right to say whatever you want without retribution, is protected by the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights

The Bill Of Rights consists of the first 10 amendments to the constitution, designed to limit the power of the government and protect the American citizen’s natural rights.

1st Amendment Rights

The rights protected by the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights. They protect the freedoms of religion, speech, and press, as well as the right to assemble and the right to petition.

Freedom of Assembly

The right to assemble. Protecting this right ensures the liberty to come together in groups and express opinions, views, or beliefs without interference from the government.

Freedom of Press

The right to a free and fair press; the right for newspapers and other media to report and publish stories without government censorship or government influence.

Clear and Present Danger

A term used by Justice Holmes in Schenck v. United States (1919) ruling that upheld that speech could be limited if it posed a “clear and present danger” to other citizens, who the government had a right to protect. This case, which dealt with was one of the first instance of a boundary on free speech that was deemed constitutional.

Imminent Lawless Action

Replaced the “clear and present danger” test in 1969 in the court case Brandenburg v. Ohio as a way to define what speech was protected by the 1st Amendment. Now, speech can be restricted if the speaker strives to provoke an “imminent” and “likely” violation of law.

Gitlow v. New York

The 1925 U.S. Supreme Court case that applies the First Amendment, including free speech, to the state governments.

Anonymous Speech

In 1960, the court struck down a Los Angeles city ordinance that banned anonymous pamphlets (Talley v. California), declaring anonymous speech was included in the free speech protected by the 1st Amendment.

School Speech

In 1969, Tinker v. Des Moines defined the rights of students, upholding that the 1st Amendment at the freedom of speech indeed applied to public schools.

Symbolic Speech

A term used to describe actions meant to convey a message in the same manner as speech, for example, an armband worn in protest of war. Symbolic speech is now agreed to be protected under the 1st Amendment, though it is not expressly written.

Free Speech Zones

controversial practice where cities or politicians set up fenced-off areas where people can express their beliefs or opinions freely. Some say this is a violation of the 1st Amendment as the entire country should be a free speech zone.


In the legal sense, obscenity refers to explicitly sexual messages or images, most often pornography. If deemed obscene, a message/image is not protected by the 1st Amendment. In 1957, the Supreme Court’s decision in Roth V. United States defined obscenity as “"utterly without redeeming social importance”, protecting classic literature that also includes sexual imagery. However, the court has had a difficult time concretely establishing what constitutes as obscenity. The court revisited this definition in 1973 with Miller v. California, finally agreeing upon a test to determine obscenity.

Libel, Slander, or Defamation

Defamation refers to the expression of a statement about a person, group, product, etc that is portrayed as factual and intended to give a negative image. Slander is spoken malicious or false defamation, while libel is written defamation.

Content Regulation

Courts have not been sympathetic to any type of content regulation for journalists, upholding the 1st Amendment rights of free speech and free press.

Hate Speech

Hate speech, malicious expression towards a particular group based on their gender, age, race, sexual orientation, etc, is considered constitutional in the United States, reiterating that while the government or courts may not like what is being said, they must support the right of an individual to say it.


Cornell Law

First Amendment Center

<William and Mary Law Review