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Among those rights preserved for every American are the rights to freedom of religion and the freedom of speech.These words mean many things and have been the subject of great debate since the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791.

It is important to note that these rights appearing in the U.S. Constitution can only be enforced against the government, and not against private companies, employers or organizations. There is no private right to free speech. However, other laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and anti-retaliation laws protect religious exercise and private speech in certain contexts.

Religious Freedom

The government cannot prevent citizens from exercising their religious beliefs and cannot establish its own religion. The clause means that the government, including states and municipalities, cannot prohibit people from gathering for purposes of prayer or other religious practices, even if those practices are to occur on public property. So long as the government does not officially sponsor the religious practice or use the opportunity to proselytize in favor of a particular religion, there is no “establishment” of religion.

This rationale extends to the appearance of “in god we trust” on U.S. currency.  The statement does not constitute the establishment of religion because it is very general, does not seek to adopt any particular religion and has significant historic underpinnings.

Freedom Speech

Very generally, the First Amendment protects speech that relates to a matter of public concern, such as petitions to the governments, or publication of matters critical of public officials or policies. There are basic requirements to a First Amendment Claim:

  • Expression of constitutionally protected speech (such as speech or article critical of the government, or a letter to the editor);
  • Some adverse act taken against the exercise of free speech (termination, arrest, refusal to grant some type of benefit); and
  • Showing that the speech was the actual cause of the adverse act.

The purest form of free speech is when a newspaper or a reporter publishes an article that is critical of the government or some government actor.  Such expression is entitled to the highest protections under the law. The government can only restrict such speech if there is some compelling interest, such as preventing the dissemination of classified secrets.

Lesser protections are given to students and government employees.  Students are subject to more restrictions because of the needs of conformity within educational settings.  Employees are not protected from retaliation if the speech involved is a part of his or her regular job duites.  For example, a police officer reporting the mayor (his boss) for criminal misconduct, may not be protected from retlaiation because reporting crimes is a part of his job.

The lawyers are Parks, Chesin & Walbert have experience evaluating and fighting cases involving the first amendment.  If you have questions or concerns about your situation, give us a call.