Freedom of Speech in the United States

A Short History and Timeline

A microphone in front of a group of people

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"If freedom of speech is taken away," George Washington told a group of military officers in 1783, "then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter." The United States has not always preserved free speech, but the tradition of free speech has been both reflected in and challenged by centuries of wars, cultural shifts, and legal challenges.


Following the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison secures passage of the Bill of Rights, which includes the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In theory, the First Amendment protects the right to freedom of speech, press, assembly, and the freedom to redress grievances by petition; in practice, its function is largely symbolic until the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Gitlow v. New York (1925).


Upset by critics of his administration, President John Adams successfully pushes for the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. The Sedition Act, in particular, targets supporters of Thomas Jefferson by restricting criticism that can be made against the president. Jefferson would go on to win the 1800 presidential election anyway, the law expired, and John Adams' Federalist Party never again won the presidency.


The federal Comstock Act of 1873 grants the post office the authority to censor mail containing material that is "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious." The law is used primarily to target information on contraception.


Illinois, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota become the first states to officially ban desecration of the United States flag. The Supreme Court would finally find bans on flag desecration unconstitutional nearly a century later, in Texas v. Johnson (1989).


The Sedition Act of 1918 targets anarchists, socialists, and other left-wing activists who opposed U.S. participation in World War I. Its passage, and the general climate of authoritarian law enforcement that surrounded it, marks the closest the United States has ever come to adopting an officially fascist, nationalist model of government.


The Alien Registration Act of 1940 is named the Smith Act after its sponsor, Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia. It targets anyone who advocated that the United States government be overthrown or otherwise replaced, which, just as it had during World War I, usually means left-wing pacifists. The Smith Act also requires that all adult non-citizens register with government agencies for monitoring. The Supreme Court later substantially weakened the Smith Act with its 1957 rulings in Yates v. the United States and Watkins v. the United States.


In Chaplinsky v. the United States (1942), the Supreme Court establishes the "fighting words" doctrine by defining that laws restricting hateful or insulting language, clearly intended to provoke a violent response, do not necessarily violate the First Amendment.


Tinker v. Des Moines was a case in which students were punished for wearing black armbands in protest against the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court holds that public school and university students do receive some First Amendment free speech protection.


The Washington Post begins publishing the "Pentagon Papers," a leaked version of the U.S. Defense Department report titled "United States—Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967." This report revealed dishonest and embarrassing foreign policy blunders on the part of the U.S. government. The government makes several attempts to suppress publication of the document, all of which ultimately fail.


In Miller v. California, the Supreme Court establishes an obscenity standard known as the Miller test. The Miller test is three-pronged and includes the following criteria:

"(1) whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, ‘taken as a whole,’ appeals to ‘prurient interest’ (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (3) whether the work, ‘taken as a whole,’ lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value."


In FCC v. Pacifica, the Supreme Court grants the Federal Communications Commission the power to fine networks for broadcasting indecent content.


Congress passes the Communications Decency Act, a federal law intended to apply indecency restrictions to the Internet as a criminal law restriction. The Supreme Court strikes down the law a year later in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997).

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Your Citation
Head, Tom. "Freedom of Speech in the United States." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Head, Tom. (2021, February 16). Freedom of Speech in the United States. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "Freedom of Speech in the United States." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).