The First Amendment and You: What Everyone Should Know

Course No. 9352
Professor John E. Finn, Ph.D.
Wesleyan University
Share This Course
4.5 out of 5
24 Reviews
83% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 9352
Audio Streaming Included Free

Course Overview

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.

Hide Full Description
12 lectures
 |  Average 44 minutes each
  • 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

Clone Content from Your Professor tab

What's Included

What Does Each Format Include?

Video DVD
Instant Audio Includes:
  • Download 12 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

Video DVD
Course Guidebook Details:
  • 112-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

Enjoy This Course On-the-Go with Our Mobile Apps!*

  • App store App store iPhone + iPad
  • Google Play Google Play Android Devices
  • Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Kindle Fire Tablet + Firephone
*Courses can be streamed from anywhere you have an internet connection. Standard carrier data rates may apply in areas that do not have wifi connections pursuant to your carrier contract.

Your professor

John E. Finn

About Your Professor

John E. Finn, Ph.D.
Wesleyan University
John E. Finn is Professor of Government Emeritus at Wesleyan University, where he taught for thirty years. Finn received a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton University, a J.D. from Georgetown University, a B.A. in political science from Nasson College, and a degree in culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute. His scholarly research and teaching focuses on constitutional theory, comparative constitutional...
Learn More About This Professor
Also By This Professor


The First Amendment and You: What Everyone Should Know is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 24.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The First Amendment The content and delivery of this course was excellent. However, all of my other courses have been video and it took a couple of lectures of folding laundry to settle in and just listen. I would have been happier with video. However, the Professor was extremely knowledgable and his organization and presentation (verbally) was excellent. I just wonder why it wasn't filmed.
Date published: 2017-05-08
Rated 2 out of 5 by from More a history of court decisions I was disappointed in the course. It is generally a series of court decisions concerning the first amendment, the general conclusion for me was what the amendment protects depends on who is on the court. The course about the great debate as to what the constitution should be was much more interesting and informative for me.
Date published: 2017-02-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The First Amendment and You: What Everyone Should Format: Audio heard in car Background: Health care professional with minimal liberal arts background Pros: Outstanding speaker. Good sense of humor. Does a very good job of illustrating ideas with actual cases. Makes a seemingly boring topic interesting. Cons: None really come to mind. I approached this case with some trepidation as I knew very little about the first amendment other than the typical ramblings of the press. After listening to this course I came away with a much better understanding of what the first amendment actually means-- what you can say, to whom you can say it and where it can be said. There are many well detailed Supreme Court cases discussed which he uses to flesh out the concepts of what the First Amendment really means to us as Americans. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2017-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Educational I think this is a course everyone should take. It not only explains our rights, it more importantly teaches us how the Supreme Court works.
Date published: 2016-08-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating! Professor Finn is clearly a gifted lecturer. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an alum of Wesleyan University though I regret never taking advantage of this professor's courses while an undergraduate. Nevertheless, this course is a wonderful example of what a student can gain by putting in enough effort. I have no legal background but I found that studying along with this course afforded me a substantially better understanding of the material. Do not expect to listen and learn without taking some time to understand and follow Dr. Finn's lectures. But if you do, the rewards are tremendous. Thank you Dr. Finn for sharing your erudite insights into this fascinating world and thank you Great Courses for seeking out this gifted and talented professor! I would encourage any student to take advantage this tremendously engaging series!
Date published: 2015-07-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from They Can't Do That, Can They? This course draws a memorable picture of our rights under the first amendment. The bill of rights puts strict limits on the government's ability to limit the actions of the American citizenry. Every day, we hear public speakers claim that someone's actions are unconstitutional. Everyone claims to know their rights under the constitution. Probably very few of us actually understand those rights. Professor Finn's lectures go far to help us understad. Professor Finn's lectures try to draw a coherent picture of the application of the provisions of the first amendment as demonstrated by the decisions of the supreme court, our final arbiter. He has selected his examples with an eye toward making the decisions distinct, and making the distinctions memorable so that when you are done with the course, you can remember and apply the lesson. All speech is not allowed by everybody in all venues and at all times. What you can say, where you can say it, and when they must allow you to speak are all factors with limits. Professor Finn's explanation is golden. Freedom of association, of religion and of the press are discussed at length. The definitions alone are fascinating topics. What is a religion? What comprises the press? What did the founders have in mind for the internet, or what do we think they would have thought? There are side effects to this course. The first is a renewed respect for the law and the lawyers. The second is awe at the trails the supreme court has to blaze and maintain. I don't know whether it was within this course or some other that I heard the statement, “The Supreme Court doesn't get the easy cases.” You cannot complete this course and walk away without understanding that the justices of the supreme court, whatever their political persuasion, have to factor in the interests of the country, the constitution as the source document, and the arguments of some very intelligent litigants in coming to their decisions. I highly recommend this course, whatever your legal and political background. I have no doubt that you will hear conclusions that are old hat, and some that are new to you. You will not agree with the court in all cases, I guarantee. Nor do I, but understanding their reasoning makes it easier for me to swallow the bitter pill and support their conclusions.
Date published: 2015-04-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant and Thought Provoking Professor John Finn has the ability to challenge and engage the listener by asking thought provoking questions that require a full consideration of the issues under consideration. Finn's selection of lecture topics are outstanding as they explore all dimensions of the five freedoms contained in the first amendment (speech, religion, press, assembly and petition.) His case selection is most illustrative not only of the principle under review, but also of the dicey and controversial issues involved in a consideration of the reasonable limits of those freedoms. His comparison of how the principles are applied in other jurisdictions (nations) is also very helpful. Finn also provides an excellent explanation of some of the more controversial cases (such as Citizens United, Roe v. Wade) and subjects (e.g. obscenity, abortion, hate speech) and does so without insinuating any personal judgement or bias. That's not to suggest that he withholds his opinions on the intellectual honesty of the courts' opinions or of their application of legal principles; here his insight is not spared, adding to the course's enjoyment. His even-handed and impartial treatment of these subjects is exceptional. For the student who wants more than just a rote recital of legal principles and is open to being challenged intellectually, I highly recommend this course. I wish that there was a video version of it as well.
Date published: 2015-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It All Depends.... This is another excellent series of lectures by Prof Finn - more focused than his one on Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights, which might be a better course to start wth. In twelve 45 minute lectures Finn dissects the way the 1st Amendment has been interpreted for the past 225 years, from just about every angle. The result is a thorough although fairly specialized and dry course, and probably not so good for someone who doesn't have at least a little bit of lawyer in them. I really like Finn's teaching style. He is extremely well informed and makes a point of raising implications and inconsistencies that arise from the various Supreme Court rulings. He makes it clear that the way the Court views the Bill of Rights is always evolving, representing both personal biases of the justices as well as the cultural climate of their day. Finn also is one of those rare speakers who never utters an "um" "ugh" or "ah". I'd love to listen to him teach in more detail on some of the other amendments. This is not the kind of course that will improve one's confidence in our system of Constitutional democracy. Instead it shows the rather tortured way the Supreme Court justifies their biases and political whims in their decisions. It made me frustrated to see the kind of power they have been delegated (often merely by themselves) over time. Especially when they strike down a case saying that it is something the legislature needs to define better and make legal, and then strikes down those subsequent legislative efforts as an attempt to bypass the Court's role in deciding constitutionality.... Catch 22 writ large. But this glimpse of the Court's workings also increased my respect for their sometimes articulate and discerning decisions, and the inherent difficulty of their job. As Prof Finn sums it up, "It all depends" how the Court interprets and applies the Constitution - on the context, the importance they give it, whether it is effecting political discourse (somehow a more valuable type of speech), a special interest or one of questionable social value - and then how this balance of course will all change with the next generation of justices...
Date published: 2015-01-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-11-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-08-04
Date published: 2014-08-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2013-02-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I agree with the subtitle of this course: 'What Everyone Should Know.' For our republic to continue in the character it was intended, a majority of our citizens should have at least a minimum knowlege and appreciation of our foundational law. Regretably, today that standard is far from being met. The content of this course is as important as any The Teaching Company offers. The First Amendment contains only 45 words. Yet the history of its interpretation and application make it difficult to grasp the nuances, even for the average law school graduate. Unfortunately, the course is offered here only in audio formats. For me, that makes the lectures sometimes hard to focus on and comprehend. In my opinion, that detracts from the value of the course and limits the professor's effectiveness. Visuals, a little mixing of the media, would have facilitated and enhanced the overall presentation. With that said, however, I would add that that Professor Finn is a quality lecturer, and with the course notes there is certainly much valuable information to be gleaned. I would recommend the course to anyone ready to put a little effort into it. Professor Finn gives us both a good historical perspective of how courts have addressed the Amendment's "five freedoms" but also explains well the most recent developments. Lincoln, even with the stresses and necessities of wartime, retained an almost religiously reverential belief in the Constitution as the anchor of our nation. But when a president says today that he retains a respect for our founding principles and documents, how can we discern whether he is just faking right as cover for a deceptive move to the left? The information in this course can be an important tool for us to acquire a better judgement.
Date published: 2012-11-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from "I know it when I see it." This course is fantastic and not only for lawyers. Indeed, this is a very important course because it covers the First Amendment in a careful way, exposing its many complexities in the process. Sure there is case law--and lots of it, but that is not to say that they are irrelevant to society. On the contrary, many points are raised which are very real for society today: -What is obscene? -What is speech? -Should corporations be protected to advertise their messages, even if they influence public debate? -How can we decide these topics? -Who is best suited to decide these topics? -What is the difference between ideas expressed that add value to the "marketplace of ideas" and obscenity? Can these ideas be both? -Are some forms of speech protected over others? Among many others. By going over the various court decisions Professor Finn meticulously lays out how the court, which goes to great lengths to uphold the original "spirit" of the Constitution and intentions of the Founding Fathers, this course allows the listener to think deeply about the values of society and our place in it. It is a very important course because even today we are very much affected by our answers to these questions mentioned above and others. With technology our privacy is shrinking. Mass media is changing, and the First Amendment is very much alive. By listening to this course, I could think carefully about what the future may look like by having a clearer idea of what goes on in the judicial process today. Content: Excellent. Very little "fat" and tons of reasoning and carefully structured opinions. Delivery: Good. While slightly pedestrian, his delivery was good with some voice variation, clear enunciation, and overall speaking, but not as good as some other lecturers because the professor did not give as many emotional devices (pauses for emphasis, raising of the voice, voice speed variation, etc.) as he could have. The lectures range from 40-45 minutes, so I could see how some listeners might drift off. Some interesting things learned along the way: -The case against pornography hinged on the claim that it is demeaning to women, and this premise was accepted, yet pornography remained protected, despite this. The reason for the court to decide this is very interesting. -Why exactly are "corporations considered people" and why did we have the decision from the Citizens United vs. the FEC turn out the way it did? It's a very, very interesting reason. -Is the press given more freedom than individuals under the Fiirst Amendment? And others. Overall, very interesting to me, very informative, and a great value because I felt that I was getting a constitutional law course without the hefty law school fees by a very polished legal scholar. There were many funny tidbits thrown in like: -"movie day" for the supreme court, and why one justice demurred (hilarious). -the story of the talking dog, and why his speech was not protected (again hilarious). The title of this review is from a landmark Supreme Court case opinion written by Potter Stewart when deciding what is pornography, which was very interesting. I know a good course when I see it. Recommended.
Date published: 2012-11-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Ponderous and Complex I had previously purchased and thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Finn’s other TTC course, ‘Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights,’ giving it a 5-star rating. This new course, ‘The First Amendment and You,’ is just not as impressive or exciting. I feel his other course was more grounded and had more interesting case examples. I also came away from the other course thinking that many aspects of civil liberty were pretty much settled law. Not so with the ‘First Amendment’ course. Too often, Professor Finn leaves an aspect or question unanswered, because there simply is no ‘final’ answer as interpretation of the law continues to evolve. There’s no comfortable certainty. I sometimes found myself losing my concentration. An attorney or law student might be able to listen casually. Perhaps if I were a $400 per hour lawyer, this would have been ‘easy listening.’ I never quite fully understood why Finn frequently mentions other democratic nations and their treatment of issues similar to our U.S. First Amendment. In Lecture 6, he seems to imply that the Canadian Supreme Court may be more enlightened than the U.S. Supreme Court. Can America today really learn from other countries and international law? Should we compare our laws to theirs in making critical decisions for America’s citizens? Finn thinks international law is important, yet he ends the course stating that the First Amendment is about the ‘meaning of America.’ But what does ‘meaning’ really mean? Finn is a fairly good speaker, but this was heavy, complex material. I did enjoy some of the cases, especially ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus’ and ‘Blackie the Cat.’ In sum, the course raised more questions than it answered, but that’s the nature of evolving law. This may be no fault of Professor Finn––it’s the nature of the Amendment. In the end, ‘The First Amendment and You’ may be a course that only a lawyer could love. And I’m not a lawyer.
Date published: 2012-10-16
  • y_2020, m_10, d_27, h_16
  • bvseo_bulk, prod_bvrr, vn_bulk_3.0.12
  • cp_2, bvpage2n
  • co_hasreviews, tv_1, tr_23
  • loc_en_US, sid_9352, prod, sort_[SortEntry(order=SUBMISSION_TIME, direction=DESCENDING)]
  • clientName_teachco
  • bvseo_sdk, p_sdk, 3.2.0
  • CLOUD, getContent, 21.49ms

Questions & Answers

Customers Who Bought This Course Also Bought

Buy together as a Set
Choose a Set Format