Imagine you live in a country where you aren’t allowed to say or write what you think. The government controls what websites you can visit. If you speak out against these limits, you’ll end up in jail.
Thankfully, that isn’t how things work in the United States. Many of our basic rights are protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Disagree with a new law in your town? You can speak up about it. Worship differently than your friends do? You have the right to follow any faith you choose or none at all. Want the latest scoop? Read, watch, or listen to as many news sources 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 make sure the government they’d created didn’t overstep its bounds.
So James Madison, who had been the main author of the Constitution, wrote the Bill of Rights. Ratified, or approved, 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 petition the government for change. It’s just 45 words—the text fits inside a single tweet! Yet the First Amendment gives Americans incredible power, says Catherine Ross, a law professor at George Washington University.
“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,” she says.
Read on to learn more about the First Amendment—and how it applies to teens like you. After all, knowing your rights is the best way to make sure you use them.