First Amendment Freedoms: Regulation of the Freedom of Speech and Assembly
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With our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech, it is important to understand the scope of the speech that we are afforded as citizens of the United States of America. First and foremost, the freedom to speak similarly includes the freedom not to speak. In other words, the government cannot require people to display messages or make certain communications that they find disagreeable to their own personal beliefs. Additionally, the government cannot prevent people from communicating a belief or an idea through some type of act. For example, in the 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines, the United States Supreme Court decided that the government could not prevent students from wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Such an act was protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

There are a few exceptions wherein the government can regulate speech and conduct as it relates to the scope of the speech. As previously discussed, the right to speak brings with it the right not to speak. We talked about how the government cannot require a person to display or communicate a message. However, the government does have the ability to tax citizens of the United States. How is this related to the issue of free speech, you ask? Well, the government can use the tax money that it collects to communicate a public message with which many citizens may disagree.

In addition to the above discussion, the government has the ability to regulate conduct related to speech if it has an important interest in the regulation that is independent of the speech, and the incidental burden on speech is minimal. A perfect example of this is when the government prohibited the burning of draft cards during the Vietnam War in order to ensure "the smooth and proper functioning of the system" through functions such as providing proof of registration. [See United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968).] Here, the government’s act of preventing individuals from protesting the war by burning their draft cards was only an incidental burden, because other such expression was open and available to those citizens who were displeased with the war effort. The reason for prohibiting the burning of draft cards was related to the government’s interest in regulating a smooth-functioning registration system, not to suppress a certain type of speech.

Finally, let’s wrap this article up by going over a few key points.