First Amendment Court Cases by Category

This is an index page for rulings in First Amendment court cases by category.

By studying court cases by category, we hope you can better understand how real-life issues drove the development of the law around freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, petition and the press in the United States.

The categories include cases in which the Supreme Court made a ruling interpreting the First Amendment. But we also have included some state supreme court rulings, particularly from the early period of U.S. history before the Supreme Court applied the protections of the First Amendment to states. We also have some federal appellate court rulings, particularly on more current issues in which the appellate courts have split on a First Amendment question.

The categories are listed alphabetically from "Academic Freedom" to "Zoning." The number of court rulings in our database for each category appears in parenthesis. Click on a category to see the list of court cases. From there, you can follow links to each case for more comprehensive summaries.

Our encyclopedia has summaries and information on more than 870 court rulings from 1799 to present.

We've grouped these cases by category, but some court cases will appear under multiple categories. (If you are looking for a list of all the Supreme Court rulings in The First Amendment Encyclopedia, use this First Amendment Court Cases by Date.)

First Amendment Court Cases by Topic

The United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.

Academic freedom involving faculty or student speech has been expounded upon by the Supreme Court as early as 1957.

Local zoning and licensing requirements for adult entertainment businesses must be balanced with freedom of expression. Adult sexual entertainment was first recognized as expression with some First Amendment protection in California v. LaRue in 1972. 

From the United States’ earliest days, speakers addressing controversial public questions have sought anonymity. Today, the right to free speech under the First Amendment protects anonymity in speech, but can be balanced against competing interests, such as the government's need for transparency in campaign finance and political activity. 

There have been two rights at stake in First Amendment cases related to abortion protests reaching the Supreme Court: the privacy rights of patients and staff members at health care facilities and the rights of speech, assembly, and petition of pro-choice and anti-abortion protesters.

Several lawsuits have arisen challenging anti-discrimination laws. Such laws seek to protect individuals from discrimination based on race, sex, religion and age. But they can run afoul of First Amendment speech and religious freedoms. 

Over the years, Congress has adopted legislation to discourage the concentration of business ownership in the United States. Some, for example, have restricted the number of media outlets one owner could have in the same city. The courts have weighed whether such laws violate free press restrictions.

 Attorney advertising presents challenging First Amendment issues for the courts. Laws that attempt to protect the public from deceptive or coercive ads must be weighed against the right of attorneys to retain some measure of free speech.

The bad tendency test was an influential standard used by U.S. courts to determine whether criticism of the government during World War I  was protected by the First Amendment. Several convictions for seditious speech were upheld because courts found the speech had a tendency to provoke harm to the United States during wartime.

Attorneys have challenged bar admission process and other bar rules under the First Amendment when they have been denied the ability to practice because of political associations or beliefs, or speech.

Regulations of billboards and newsracks have raised First Amendment claims that such laws stifle free press and free speech.

Blasphemy laws have disappeared in the United States, but their remnants led to some early cases involving the First Amendment.

By designating Sunday as a Sabbath and by restricting activities of individuals on that day, states with Sunday blue laws have arguably favored Christianity over religions that celebrate different Sabbaths. Litigation over blue laws were common throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century.

This is a list of significant court cases related to book banning and libraries. The cases arose from disputes such as the authority of local school boards to remove certain books from school libraries and the authority of the state to seize and destroy obscene books.

The Federal Communications Commission regulates radio, television and cable because they are seen as embodying a public interest. Sometimes the regulations implicate the First Amendment freedom of free speech.

The regulation of political campaigns has led to numerous Supreme Court rulings involving free speech rights. Issues have included  ballot access, rights of political parties, electioneering and what can be said during a campaign, campaign disclosure requirements and contribution limits.

Almost all states regulate charitable solicitations, but some laws have been ruled unconstitutional under the free speech provisions of the First Amendment.

Courts have ruled that child pornography, a form of sexual expression depicting children engaged in sexually explicit conduct, is not entitled to First Amendment protection. 

Courts have sometimes been called upon to consider religious freedom rights under the First Amendment in settling disputes over church property and governance. 

The First Amendment proved to be a crucial tool for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The expressive actions of protesters and activists led to the considerable growth of First Amendment precedent, expanding free expression principles. “We may come to see the Negro as winning back for us the freedoms the Communists seemed to have lost for us,” wrote First Amendment scholar Harry Kalven Jr.

Early in the 20th century, the Supreme Court established the clear and present danger test as the predominant standard for determining when speech is protected by the First Amendment. The Court crafted the test — and the bad tendency test, with which it is often conflated or contrasted — in cases involving seditious libels, that is, criticisms of the government, its officials, or its policies. It was used to convict people who criticized the government about World War I.

Commercial speech is a form of protected communication under the First Amendment, but it does not receive as much free speech protection as forms of noncommercial speech, such as political speech.

Congress adopted several statutes aimed at communists, including the Alien Registration Act, or Smith Act, of 1940; the Internal Security Act, or McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, also known as the Subversive Activities Control Act; and the Communist Control Act of 1954. Many of those laws were challenged as infringing upon free speech rights and rights of association.

The compelled speech doctrine sets out the principle that the government cannot force an individual or group to support certain speech or expression. Government cannot punish a person for refusing to articulate, advocate, or adhere to the government’s approved messages.

The Confederate flag continues to generate controversy and impassioned debates with implications for the First Amendment. Some cases have reached federal appellate courts, but not the Supreme Court.

Individuals who oppose participation in war based on their religious beliefs have sometimes refused government requirements to serve in combat, register for the draft, pay taxes tied to war allocations, or make any type of contribution to a war effort. Government prosecution for such refusals has led to several First Amendment cases that have considered religious freedom in conscientious objection disputes.

A judge may find a person in contempt of court and mete our punishment when a person refuses to follow a court order or for trespassing against the dignity of the court itself. Punishment by the court has raised First Amendment issues when the contempt ruling involves a person's speech.

A content-based law or regulation discriminates against speech based on the substance of what it communicates. In contrast, a content-neutral law applies to expression without regard to its substance. The Supreme Court is likely to strike down regulations that discriminate on the basis of what is said or expressed. This is a sampling of cases in which the court has examined what counts as a content-based law.

Tension arises between copyright laws and the First Amendment, as copyright owners often seek to assert their property rights and thereby limit the dissemination of information. Copyright law attempts to reduce this tension in part through fair use.

Corporate speech refers to the rights of corporations to advertise their products and to speak to matters of public concern. This can be commercial speech, such as through advertising, and political speech in the form of contributions and expenditures on behalf of candidates and political issues. The Supreme Court has found through a series of cases that regulation of commercial speech must survive intermediate scrutiny to pass constitutional muster under the First Amendment, but political speech of a corporation must survive strict scrutiny.

Counterpseech is a doctrine developed by the Supreme Court that posits that the proper solution to negative and even untrue speech is positive speech, not shutting down the negative speech. The theory is that recipients of speech can weigh for themselves competing ideas and follow the better approach. The counterspeech doctrine is one of the most important free-expression principles in First Amendment jurisprudence. 

Creationism and intelligent design are religious beliefs that have sometimes resulted in questions about what can be taught in public schools about the origin of life without violating the First Amendment's "establishment" clause, or separation of church and state.

Numerous states and U.S. territories enacted criminal syndicalism laws in the late 1910s and early 1920s with the purpose of making it illegal for individuals or groups to advocate radical political and economic changes by criminal or violent means. The laws led to a series of First Amendment rulings.

Since the 1950s, a number of states have passed laws banning cross burnings. Is burning a cross expressive speech or a threat? The constitutionality of these laws did not reach the Supreme Court until the early 1990s.

The Supreme Court has looked at decisions to deny passports to individuals sometimes based on their political and religious beliefs, raising First Amendment questions on freedom of speech and religion.

Dress codes are typically implemented by school districts and employers to promote learning, safety, and image. Although such regulations have faced First Amendment challenges by students, parents, and employees, the courts have generally supported the schools and employers.

The Supreme Court has weighed free speech and association rights in considering state and federal laws that regulate elections and a candidate's ability to be on the ballot.

Congress enacted the Espionage Act of 1917 on June 15, two months after the United States entered World War I. Several cases involving the Espionage Act (and the 1918 Sedition Act) made it to the Supreme Court in the years following World War I, with the court upholding several convictions under the law. The rulings during this period established early concepts such as allowing the government more latitude during wartime to punish speech that creates a "clear and present danger."

The first clause in the Bill of Rights states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” For approximately the first 150 years of the country’s existence, there was little debate over the meaning of this clause in the Constitution. As the citizenry became more diverse, however, challenges arose to existing laws and practices, and eventually, the Supreme Court was called upon to determine the meaning of the establishment clause. Though not explicitly stated in the First Amendment, the clause is often interpreted to mean that the Constitution requires the separation of church and state.

Expressive conduct is behavior designed to convey a message. It can be in the form of symbolic speech, like wearing an anti-war armband in school, or speech-plus-behavior. When faced with laws that infringe on expressive conduct, the Supreme Court generally asks whether the regulation is aimed at the expressive or the nonexpressive aspects of the conduct.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1942 that "fighting words" are not protected by free speech. Several court cases since have used this concept to determine when speech crosses the line into the type of speech that can be regulated.

Several challenges have arisen to federal laws that seek to control the display and treatment of the U.S. flag. While initially upholding laws against flag desecration, the court later considered flag-burning as a form of symbolic speech that is protected by the First Amendment.

Can the government force people, including schoolchildren to salute the U.S. flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance? The court has considered challenges to such requirements in public schools.

The "free exercise" of religion clause in the First Amendment allows us to worship as we wish. But the precise meaning of these words has been a matter of dispute from the beginning. For example, what if the exercise of one's religion violates laws, such as polygamy or the use of drugs? The Supreme Court has weighed in on a variety of cases involving the "free exercise" clause.

The First Amendment guarantees “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” The notion that the act of gathering is pivotal to a functioning democracy relates to the belief that individuals espousing ideas will tend to coalesce around their commonalities. In the 1930s, the Supreme Court weighed in on the right of assembly, recognizing in a landmark case that the right to gather collectively as one voice advanced benefits warranting constitutional protection.

The right to expressive association refers to the right of people to associate together for expressive purposes – often for political purposes.  Another line of freedom of association cases concern the rights of political parties to set their own rules and govern their internal affairs.  

Freedom of the press remains a precious and vital liberty, ensuring that people can criticize public officials, expose government corruption, and distribute material on virtually any subject imaginable, free from most prior restraints and other forms of censorship. Several cases have reached the Supreme Court regarding freedom of the press.

Gag orders must be carefully scrutinized because they involve two of the most disfavored types of speech limitations:  prior restraints and content-based limits on speech. Generally, such gag orders have to survive strict scrutiny to be constitutional under the First Amendment.

Governments sometimes attempt to limit or control the speech of those that they are funding. The Supreme Court has generally upheld such conditions on government funding, even when those restrictions may have a chilling effect on the free speech rights of government employees or contractors.

The government's investigative power is broad, but the Supreme Court has over the years sought to restrain investigations by Congress that interfered with First Amendment rights.

Under the government speech doctrine, the government has its own rights as speaker, immune from free speech challenges. The Supreme Court through various cases has upheld the government's right to assert its own ideas and messages against challenges of viewpoint discrimination. 

Can a judge restrict speech of jurors after their service has expired? 

The First Amendment protects “hate speech,” which is generally agreed to mean abusive language specifically attacking a person or persons because of their race, color, religion, ethnic group, gender, or sexual orientation. Hate speech has been distinguished from threats, which can be illegal.

Although the First Amendment makes no distinction between citizens and noncitizens, Supreme Court precedents interpreting the amendment do not always treat these groups the same.

Many Supreme Court cases upholding restrictions on speech believed to be subversive have relied on the idea that such speech is forbidden because it incites, or is likely to lead to, violence or illegal actions.

The application of First Amendment rights to the states has taken place in a case-by-case process. This incorporation of rights in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights to states has expanded protections for citizens against states seeking to restrain First Amendment rights.