The first amendment seemingly is the most crucial section of the Bill of Rights, protecting some five of the most fundamental liberties relevant to man. These are the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to petition for the government to right wrongs done, and lastly the freedom to assemble. This Bill of Rights is specific freedoms that cannot be taken away from any citizen even by the government itself. They became part of the American Constitution in 1791 after adoption resulting from ratification by delegates from the various American states. The Freedom of Speech allows citizens to speak their thoughts, as long as their speech does not serve to injure someones personality through falsehood intentionally. Neither should someone make deliberate careless utterances intended to harm others. This may include an action as simple as shouting a snake! at a crowd where there is none (Robert, 2014).
This first amendment also gives people the right to disagree with what others say without fearing punishment from the government agencies. The freedom of religion on its part allows every citizen to belong to any faith or to belong to none at all without any fear of discrimination by others. This freedom will enable people of any faith to congregate in observance of their shared faith and practices that come with the said faith. In a different lawsuit, an American court ruled that the government shall never show nor be seen to show favouritism to a particular religion or to be seen to prefer religion to irreligion (Walsh, 2015).
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission vs. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc.
This case touches on the freedom of religion. The United States Supreme Court was called upon to make a ruling on a case involving Samantha Elauf, a Muslim-American lady who was turned away from a job at Abercrombie & Fitch Stores because she wore a hijab, which according to the company conflicted with its rules on the dressing. The Court would later rule 8-1 in favour of Elauf. The judges held that she did not have to explicitly request an accommodation to be protected from Title VII, which prohibits discrimination on religious grounds during hiring (Barnes, 2015).
The opinion of the majority was that there was enough prior knowledge by Abercrombie concerning Elaufs religious practice (One of the hiring staff had hinted to the rest of the panellist about her thought that the scarf Elauf wore was due to her religious leaning) (Walsh,2015). One of the judges, Justice Clarence Thomas who concurred in part and dissented in part, accepted the interpretation by the majority of the judges. The judges agreed that title VII protected one from intended discrimination against a religious group, but opined that the company did not invoke that in this case because their dress code was a religion-neutral policy applicable to all who had applied for the job. The Supreme Courts ruling, therefore, revived the lawsuit Elauf had filed against the company, which had previously awarded her $20,000(Barnes, 2015).
Elonis vs the United States
The case between Elonis and the United States is one touching on freedom of speech. The Federal law outlawed the communication of threatening words whose intention is to injure the person of the intended recipient interstate since 1939 (Emily, 2014). Despite the fact that the Bill of Rights allows for free speech, the Supreme Court has held that the first amendment does not in any way allow for threats. The petitioner, Elonis, had been convicted of having gone contrary to this provision under instructions that a jury should find out whether a reasonable person would find his communication a threat.
Elonis Anthony Douglas and the wife Tara divorced in 2010. Elonis then resorted to his Facebook account to communicate violent rap lyrics that could easily be interpreted as targeting Tara. The words included: only one way exists on how to love you, but several on how to kill you. Tara was so frightened that she sought a Protection from Abuse Order. A jury sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania indicted him for having communicated words of threat meant to injure the person of Tara (Robert, 2014).
Dismissing the indictment, Elonis argued that the Supreme Court had defined true threat in Virginia vs. Black in such a way that prevented him from being prosecuted due to the absence of proof that he had a subjective intent of threatening Tara by his posts. At the trial, the jury was instructed by the district court that the petitioner could face conviction if a reasonable speaker would foresee the interpretation of the said posts as threatening (Emily, 2014). He would be convicted for forty-four months of imprisonment coupled with three years of supervision upon release. The judges argued that the objective intent standard protected speech that did not threaten, and addressed any harm due to real threats.
Elonis after that moved to the Supreme Court, basing his argument on the failure of the district court to show any intent by him to threaten Tara, and on First Amendment rights (Robert, 2014). The Supreme Court reversed his conviction in the 8-1 decision. Judge Alito argued that lyrics to songs performed live or already recorded are not likely to be seen as really threatening to a real person, whereas original statements posted on the social media and pointedly directed at their targets are much more likely to be considered severe.
The jury received the instructions that the government needed to prove that a reasonable person would consider Eloniss words as threatening. The Federal legal system does recognise not only the results of a wrongful act but also understand the mental state of the defendant (Emily, 2014). Whereas the District Court had convicted Elonis based on the jurys conclusion that a reasonable person, the Supreme Court on its part, could easily interpret his communication as threats rejected that premise arguing that it reduced the liability of the crime due to negligence. However, Justice Thomas while dissenting invoked the ordinary legal rules, agreeing with the District Court that required merely a proof of actual intent.
Given the fact that the case was decided solely on statutory premises, true threats remain a doctrinal puzzle for the lower courts to solve (Robert, 2014). Because the Supreme Court has not handled many such cases, some legal scholars and practitioners have tried drawing parallels between incitements and threats. This class of unprotected speech still requires subjective intent.
Barnes, Robert (1 June 2015). Supreme Court allows suit by Muslim woman who says headscarf cost her a job. Washington Post. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
Emily Bazelon (November 25, 2014). Do Online Death Threats Count as Free Speech? The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved November 25, 2014.
Robert Barnes (November 23, 2014). Supreme Courts case tests the limits of free speech on Facebook and other social media. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 25, 2014.
Walsh, M. (2015). High Court Rules in Online Threat, Religious Rights Cases.
Education Week, 34(34), 19.
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