Two important rights of American citizens are the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble. These First Amendment rights are granted by the United States Constitution to all citizens of the United States. The First Amendment by itself only restricts the United States Congress from passing laws that improperly abridge the rights of free speech and freedom to assemble. The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution extends these rights so that state and local governments do not have the power to pass laws which improperly abridge, limit, or restrict those fundamental constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
There are many, many cases that interpret the rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Whenever a question arises about whether or not the government is improperly abridging the rights of free speech or assembly, this case law can help determine exactly how those rights are to be applied. One major purpose of a court is to apply a legal principle to the specific facts of any given situation, but the fact of legal situations can vary widely. As a result, it’s not always immediately clear how a legal principle will be applied in any given case.
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that the people are entitled “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution provides that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution provides that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, and also provides that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation. These protections generally apply to corporations, or companies, as well as to individuals. Most of us recognize that the government can’t properly take our own private property without paying for it. But a court must balance competing interests. For example, a court must balance the interest of free speech against the right of control over one’s own property, and when such balancing is done there can be interesting results.
There is a question as to how much control the owner of property is entitled to exert over his property. The whole concept of “property” is founded on the idea of “exclusivity.” In other words, if one person owns an item of property, then under the laws of the United States that person has the right to exclude all the world from using that property if he or she so chooses. The right to control, or exclude, use of property is one of the key hallmarks associated with property ownership. But situations can arise where this near-absolute right to exclude others must be tempered. And sometimes the right of free speech can, on balance, trump the right to the exclusive use of property.
For an interesting example of a case where the right of free speech was directly balanced against the rights of property ownership, see next week’s article.
First amendment rights of free speech and free assembly are governed by extensive case law interpreting and defining those rights. Proper application and understanding of these rights involves complex legal considerations. Persons with First Amendment claims, issues or questions should consult competent legal counsel.