“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution passed by Congress September 25, 1789. Ratified December 15, 1791.
One of the ten amendments of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment gives everyone residing in the United States the right to hear all sides of every issue and to make their own judgments about those issues without government interference or limitations. The First Amendment allows individuals to speak, publish, read and view what they wish, worship (or not worship) as they wish, associate with whomever they choose, and gather together to ask the government to make changes in the law or to correct the wrongs in society.
The right to speak and the right to publish under the First Amendment has been interpreted widely to protect individuals and society from government attempts to suppress ideas and information, and to forbid government censorship of books, magazines, and newspapers as well as art, film, music and materials on the internet. The Supreme Court and other courts have held conclusively that there is a First Amendment right to receive information as a corollary to the right to speak. Justice William Brennan elaborated on this point in 1965:
“The protection of the Bill of Rights goes beyond the specific guarantees to protect from Congressional abridgment those equally fundamental personal rights necessary to make the express guarantees fully meaningful.I think the right to receive publications is such a fundamental right.The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addressees are not free to receive and consider them. It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers.” Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301 (1965).
The Supreme Court reaffirmed that the right to receive information is a fundamental right protected under the U.S. Constitution when it considered whether a local school board violated the Constitution by removing books from a school library. In that decision, the Supreme Court held that “the right to receive ideas is a necessary predicate to the recipient’s meaningful exercise of his own rights of speech, press, and political freedom.” Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982)
Public schools and public libraries, as public institutions, have been the setting for legal battles about student access to books, the removal or retention of “offensive” material, regulation of patron behavior, and limitations on public access to the internet. Restrictions and censorship of materials in public institutions are most commonly prompted by public complaints about those materials and implemented by government officials mindful of the importance some of their constituents may place on religious values, moral sensibilities, and the desire to protect children from materials they deem to be offensive or inappropriate. Directly or indirectly, ordinary individuals are the driving force behind the challenges to the freedom to access information and ideas in the library.
The First Amendment prevents public institutions from compromising individuals' First Amendment freedoms by establishing a framework that defines critical rights and responsibilities regarding free expression and the freedom of belief. The First Amendment protects the right to exercise those freedoms, and it advocates respect for the right of others to do the same. Rather than engaging in censorship and repression to advance one's values and beliefs, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis counsels persons living in the United States to resolve their differences in values and belief by resort to "more speech, not enforced silence."
By virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment, the First Amendment's constitutional right of free speech and intellectual freedom also applies to state and local governments. Government agencies and government officials are forbidden from regulating or restricting speech or other expression based on its content or viewpoint. Criticism of the government, political dissatisfaction, and advocacy of unpopular ideas that people may find distasteful or against public policy are nearly always protected by the First Amendment. Only that expression that is shown to belong to a few narrow categories of speech is not protected by the First Amendment. The categories of unprotected speech include obscenity, child pornography, defamatory speech, false advertising, true threats, and fighting words. Deciding what is and is not protected speech is reserved to courts of law.
The First Amendment only prevents government restrictions on speech. It does not prevent restrictions on speech imposed by private individuals or businesses. Facebook and other social media can regulate or restrict speech hosted on their platforms because they are private entities.
First Amendment Resources
Clauses of the First Amendment | The National Constitution Center
First Amendment FAQ | Freedom Forum
Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly, and Petition: Common Interpretations and Matters for Debate | National Constitution Center
What is Censorship?
Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that some individuals, groups, or government officials find objectionable or dangerous. Would-be censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove information they judge inappropriate or dangerous from public access, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. The censor wants to prejudge materials for everyone. It is no more complicated than someone saying, “Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it!”
“Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.” — Article 3, Library Bill of Rights
ALA Statements and Policies on Censorship
Challenged Resources: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2019)
A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. ALA declares as a matter of firm principle that it is the responsibility of every library to have a clearly defined written policy for collection development that includes a procedure for review of challenged resources.
Labeling Systems: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2015)
The American Library Association affirms the rights of individuals to form their own opinions about resources they choose to read, view, listen to, or otherwise access. Libraries do not advocate the ideas found in their collections or in resources accessible through the library. The presence of books and other resources in a library does not indicate endorsement of their contents by the library. Likewise, providing access to digital information does not indicate endorsement or approval of that information by the library. Labeling systems present distinct challenges to these intellectual freedom principles.
Rating Systems: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2019)
Libraries, no matter their size, contain an enormous wealth of viewpoints and are responsible for making those viewpoints available to all. However, libraries do not advocate or endorse the content found in their collections or in resources made accessible through the library. Rating systems appearing in library public access catalogs or resource discovery tools present distinct challenges to these intellectual freedom principles. Q&A on Labeling and Rating Systems
Expurgation of Library Materials: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2014)
Expurgating library materials is a violation of the Library Bill of Rights. Expurgation as defined by this interpretation includes any deletion, excision, alteration, editing, or obliteration of any part(s) of books or other library resources by the library, its agent, or its parent institution (if any).
Restricted Access to Library Materials: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights (2014)
Libraries are a traditional forum for the open exchange of information. Attempts to restrict access to library materials violate the basic tenets of the Library Bill of Rights.
Library Bill of Rights (1939)
Adopted by ALA Council, the Articles of the Library Bill of Rights are unambiguous statements of basic principles that should govern the service of all libraries. (printable pamphlets)
Freedom to Read Statement (1953)
A collaborative statement by literary, publishing, and censorship organizations declaring the importance of our constitutionally protected right to access information and affirming the need for our professions to oppose censorship.
Libraries: An American Value (1999)
Adopted by ALA Council, this brief statement pronounces the distinguished place libraries hold in our society and their core tenets of access to materials and diversity of ideas.
Guidelines for Library Policies (2019)
Guidelines for librarians, governing authorities, and other library staff and library users on how constitutional principles apply to libraries in the United States.
These guidelines provide a policy and implementation framework for public and academic libraries engaging in the use of social media.
Intellectual Freedom Manual (2021)
Edited by Martin Garnar and Trina Magi with ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom
The 10th edition manual is an indispensable resource for day-to-day guidance on maintaining free and equal access to information for all people
Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy (2016 - present)
Edited by Shannon Oltmann with ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom
Published quarterly, JIFP offers articles related to intellectual freedom and privacy, both in libraries and in the wider world.
True Stories of Censorship Battles in America's Libraries (2012)
By Valerie Nye and Kathy Barco
This book is a collection of accounts from librarians who have dealt with censorship in some form. Divided into seven parts, the book covers intralibrary censorship, child-oriented protectionism, the importance of building strong policies, experiences working with sensitive materials, public debates and controversies, criminal patrons, and library displays.
Beyond Banned Books: Defending Intellectual Freedom throughout Your Library (2019)
By Kristin Pekoll with ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom
A level-headed guide that uses specific case studies to offer practical guidance on safeguarding intellectual freedom related to library displays, programming, and other librarian-created content.
Lessons in Censorship: How Schools and Courts Subvert Students' First Amendment Rights (2015)
By Catherine J. Ross
Lessons in Censorship highlights the troubling and growing tendency of schools to clamp down on off-campus speech such as texting and sexting and reveals how well-intentioned measures to counter verbal bullying and hate speech may impinge on free speech. Throughout, Ross proposes ways to protect free expression without disrupting education.
Assistance and Consultation
The staff of the Office for Intellectual Freedom is available to answer questions or provide assistance to librarians, trustees, educators, and the public about the First Amendment and censorship. Areas of assistance include policy development, minors’ rights, and professional ethics. Inquiries can be directed via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at (312) 280-4226.