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The First Amendment and You: What Everyone Should Know

The First Amendment and You: What Everyone Should Know

Professor John E. Finn Ph.D.
Wesleyan University
Course No.  9352
Course No.  9352
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  45 minutes per lecture

A mere 45 words, the First Amendment to the Constitution stands as a pillar of our democracy and has had an incalculable influence on the development of human freedom in the United States and the Western world. By defining the relationship between the people and the state and placing checks on governmental power to silence its populace, its protections have important ramifications for every American. But the First Amendment is not simply a legal construct—it has significant and far-reaching cultural implications as well.

To study the First Amendment is to learn something about the meaning of America and who “We the People” are. So, it behooves citizens to understand what it says and its latest interpretations—particularly in this age of rapidly emerging technology.

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A mere 45 words, the First Amendment to the Constitution stands as a pillar of our democracy and has had an incalculable influence on the development of human freedom in the United States and the Western world. By defining the relationship between the people and the state and placing checks on governmental power to silence its populace, its protections have important ramifications for every American. But the First Amendment is not simply a legal construct—it has significant and far-reaching cultural implications as well.

To study the First Amendment is to learn something about the meaning of America and who “We the People” are. So, it behooves citizens to understand what it says and its latest interpretations—particularly in this age of rapidly emerging technology.

The First Amendment and You: What Everyone Should Know is a practical guide to understanding the protections and limitations implied by this fundamental constitutional provision. Thoughtfully presented by Professor John E. Finn of Wesleyan University—an award-winning teacher and internationally recognized expert on constitutional law and theory—this 12-lecture course will help you fully grasp why we have a First Amendment, what and whom it protects, and why it matters to you personally.

Dive into the Ongoing Debate

Thanks to the profoundly complex and continually evolving web of rules, doctrine, and cases the First Amendment has engendered, any discussion of it is inherently open-ended. Professor Finn is first to admit he doesn’t have all the answers—even Supreme Court justices can’t seem to agree on interpretations from case to case—but he skillfully explains the fundamental principles involved, illuminates the relevant case law, and elucidates the crucial questions and implications in a way everyone can comprehend.

You’ll consider questions of how we define speech, the meaning of “religion,” and when the state can interfere with your rights. The course also sheds light on questions courts and citizens will be grappling with for years to come:

  • How does the First Amendment apply to the Internet?
  • Does the First Amendment apply to video games?
  • Should new communication technologies make courts reconsider well-settled rules?
  • Is social media subject to existing principles, to new ones, or to none at all?

Throughout the lectures, you’ll return to a fundamental theme: What the First Amendment protects is largely a function of why it protects it—the why being America’s commitment to democracy and liberty. In pursuit of these ideals, courts have often placed a higher value on political speech, although no such distinction is made in the Constitution.
As you delve into this “categorical approach” to protected speech, you’ll investigate how it applies to various forms of restricted expression, including hate speech, obscenity, and pornography. And you’ll examine landmark Supreme Court decisions, including

  • Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, which established the doctrine of fighting words;
  • New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, a case best known for establishing the actual malice test in defamation suits; and
  • U.S. v. O’Brien, which demonstrated that the amount of protection your speech warrants may depend on the content and form it takes.

You’ll also look at key 21st-century decisions, such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

Learn from the Best

Taught by an accomplished legal scholar, this engrossing course clears up prevalent misconceptions and applies the First Amendment’s guiding principles to America’s ever-changing legal landscape.

Professor Finn believes constitutional literacy is the civic responsibility of every American, and listening to The First Amendment and You puts you well on your way. You’ll gain greater insight on your responsibilities and rights; a better understanding of past, present, and future court decisions; and a deeper appreciation for our nation’s robust defense of freedom of speech.

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    A Citizen’s Guide to the First Amendment
    Why do we have a First Amendment? Whom does the First Amendment protect? As Professor Finn outlines the course, you’ll learn theories on why the First Amendment exists, become familiar with the protections provided, and confront the most common misperceptions Americans have regarding freedom of speech, rights of the press, and more. x
  • 2
    The First Amendment and Political Speech
    On what basis does the court place a higher value on political speech? How do we identify what qualifies as political speech? Investigate the categorical approach to the First Amendment and learn why the state may prohibit speech. Study New York Times Co. v. Sullivan as you contemplate whether speech that defames or includes lies should be protected. x
  • 3
    The First Amendment and Symbolic Speech
    When is conduct considered speech? Should speech protections be extended to conduct at all? Explore the concept of symbolic speech by considering the forms speech can take and examining the classic Supreme Court cases of U.S. v. O’Brien, Spence v. Washington, and Tinker v. Des Moines. x
  • 4
    The First Amendment and Corporate Speech
    Do corporations have speech rights? Are advertisements protected? Look at decisions that have contributed to defining commercial speech and the measure of protection it deserves. Delve into cases like Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which tested the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold Act, and others concerning restrictions on corporations, unions, and various groups when commenting on public affairs. x
  • 5
    The First Amendment and Obscenity
    Using the categorical approach, the court says some speech falls outside the orbit of the First Amendment and may be censored. How do we define what’s offensive? In this lecture, you’ll see how obscenity and pornography—although plainly speech or expression—are entitled to little or no protection, and probe how the court justifies this exclusion. x
  • 6
    The First Amendment and Hate Speech
    Is there a difference between hateful speech and speech that’s simply offensive? Study Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire, Cohen v. California, Snyder v. Phelps, and other significant cases as you investigate the fighting words doctrine and the history of hate speech laws. x
  • 7
    Does It Matter Where You Speak?
    Explore to what extent citizens can speak freely in various private and public locations. Examine the rationale behind the public forum doctrine and differentiate between rules that govern speech in public forums, limited public forums, and nonpublic forums. x
  • 8
    Freedom of the Press
    Is the press clause of the First Amendment redundant? Discover why the founders made this distinction and the difficulty of defining who and what constitute “the press.” Consider whether journalists have a special privilege to withhold their sources, if courtroom proceedings should be televised, and claims of citizens’ right of access to the media. x
  • 9
    Freedom of Association
    The First Amendment identifies rights to assemble and petition the government, but does not protect association specifically. Examine cases that establish protection for association and highlight the tension between our commitments to associational freedom and equality. Learn when and why the state may limit our freedom to associate. x
  • 10
    The Establishment Clause
    Learn why freedom of religion is so crucial to a constitutional democracy and the issues that have given rise to an incredibly complex—and frequently evolving—series of doctrinal rules and tests, including the important Lemon Test. x
  • 11
    The Free Exercise Clause
    When and why can the state regulate or prohibit the practice of religion? Does religious freedom mean you can opt out of secular laws that burden your faith? Investigate fascinating cases that bear directly on the practical—often controversial— implications of the words “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. x
  • 12
    The Future of the First Amendment
    Do legal precedents apply to the Internet or are new parameters needed? Consider the debate over net neutrality and explore how existing First Amendment rules apply in the context of new technologies such as social media, Skype, and other online content; video games; and cell-phone cameras. x

Lecture Titles

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John E. Finn
Ph.D. John E. Finn
Wesleyan University
Dr. John E. Finn is Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. He earned his B.A. in Political Science from Nasson College, his J.D. from Georgetown University, and his Ph.D. in Political Science from Princeton University. Professor Finn is an internationally recognized expert on constitutional law and political violence. His public lectures include testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, as well as lectures in Bolivia, Canada, Chile, England, France, Italy, and Spain. Professor Finn is the recipient of four distinguished teaching awards at Wesleyan University, as well as an award for distinguished teaching by a graduate student at Princeton University. He is published widely in the fields of constitutional theory and interpretation. He is the author of the highly regarded Constitutions in Crisis: Political Violence and the Rule of Law and coauthor of American Constitutional Law: Essays, Cases, and Comparative Notes, described as ìthe Cadillac of constitutional law casebooks.î
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Reviews

Rated 4.1 out of 5 by 7 reviewers.
Rated 3 out of 5 by Subject was interesting but presentation was hard to listen to and keep track of various cases. P roof said "and I quote" about two hundred times. Needs to be more human/flash and blood. November 13, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by A Good Survey of First Amendment Case Law I took this course in audio format, and I did one lecture each day, The course was an eye opener for me, especially how 46 words are analyzed and interpreted based on a wide variety of factors, and how more than 200 years later, those 46 words still set the parameters of this basic freedom. I had a little difficulty following the case law, since some of the cases discussed were later overturned by other cases, and this was a little difficult for me to follow without a visual format. I would simply rerun the audio over and over until I got the proper case sequence. I enjoyed this course and I would recommend it to others. August 4, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by THE ACCOMMODATIING COURT I CAME AWAY FROM THIS COURSE WITH THE FEELING THAT A GOOD LAWYER, NO MATTER HOW REDICULOUS OR OUTRAGEOUS HIS CLIENTS'S CASE, IF HE CAN TIE IT INTO A FIRST AMENDMENT CLAUSE NO MATTER HOW TENEOUS, HE STANDS A GOOD CHANCE OF WINNING WITH THE SUPREME COURT. THIS COURSE IS A GOOD "THINK PIECE". A PRELUDE TO MY NEXT ADVENTURE: , #8570 "THE HISTGORY OF THE SUPREME COURT" August 1, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent - but First, my background is engineering, not the law. I found this course very interesting and very thought-provoking (that is where the "but" in the review title comes in, as I will explain shortly). Clearly, Professor Flynn has put a great deal of thought into the preparation of the course. His lectures are very clear, the case studies and quotes from the opinions of the Justices are well-chosen and illustrative, and his comments are forthright and illuminating. Why, then, the "but"? Many times in the course, I found myself startled by how far the interpretations by the Supreme Court have strayed from the original wording of the Amendment, causing me to question the Court's authority for such judgments and to regret the absence of any checks and balances on the Court. An immediate example occurs in interpreting the word "speech". The widespread meaning of the word in dictionaries and everyday usage is of a spoken utterance and the First Amendment itself seems to make that distinction by separately referring to "[freedom of] the press" which at that time was a written form of communication. How, then, can the Court interpret silent actions as speech? Simply adding the word "expressive" does not seem to me to be an adequate justification. Such thoughts arise frequently in listening to the course and it would have been very helpful if Professor Flynn had addressed this issue even if only briefly. To me, the implications of this issue are both wide and deep and raise further concerns about the very low rate of Amendment to the Constitution and its resulting ossification. I hope that the Teaching Company will commission a course (perhaps by Professor Flynn) to discuss these and related questions. Regardless of my "but", I have no hesitation in giving this course five stars on the basis of its content and its success in explaining what protections the First Amendment gives us (and does not give us) under the law as presently interpreted. February 7, 2013
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