Sample History Paper on The Impact of Federalism on Free Speech

The Impact of Federalism on Free Speech

Articulation and expression of ideas for both personal and political purposes are central to human existence. Human beings communicate through speaking, writing, and protesting among other means. The ability to express ideas, however, is not without restraint. The concept of freedom of speech has been studied extensively to explore the association between people and their society. The degree of freedom to communicate significantly affects society and determines the strength of democracy. Freedom of speech, as enhanced by the First Amendment, is the free expression of ideas. It allows people to share ideas without governmental restraint. That is, any communication relevant to the public including criticism of public officials, opinions of government actions, or demands to uphold certain rights, are protected under the First Amendment. Although the First Amendment has both positive and negative impact, its benefit to the society overshadows the harm.

The First Amendment, which was implemented on December 15, 1791, is a section of the Bill of Rights (ACLU, 2018). The Bill of Rights offers constitutional protection of specific individual liberties, such as freedoms of speech, worship, and assembly. The First Amendment does not provide a specific definition of freedom of speech, shifting the responsibility of deciding what speech should or should not be protected to the courts. In general, however, the law protects all forms of communication, including speech, art, and media. Federalism, when it comes to freedom of expression, has enormously contributed to democracy thus civil rights and liberties. Hudson Jr. notes the significant role of the First Amendment in the advancement of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ‘60s (2002). During this period, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists led protests, demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins to enforce social change. Focusing on the rights of free speech and assembly, the civil rights activists protested on Birmingham and Selma streets in Alabama and cities across the South to fight against unfair treatment of the African Americans.

Without the First Amendment and judicial support, the civil rights movement would not have made such tremendous achievements. Hudson Jr. points out that the peaceful, non-violent demonstrations raised public awareness of Black injustices, challenged the public’s beliefs, and fought the forces of power behind the oppression of Blacks (2002). Additionally, the mentioned era of civil rights activism occurred when the courts were embracing the expansion of the First Amendment. As a result, courts issued rulings in favor of the civil rights activists. For instance, in Edwards v. South Carolina (1963), the high court overturned the convictions of the breach of peace of 187 African American students who protested at the South Carolina Statehouse carrying banners with messages such as “Down with Segregation.” The court termed these actions as “the peaceful expression of popular beliefs” (Hudson Jr., 2002). Similar scenarios were experienced in Garner v. Louisiana (1961), Stromberg v. People of California (1931), and NAACP v. Alabama (1958) (Hudson, 2002). These cases demonstrate the crucial role of the First Amendment in the acceleration of the civil rights movement thus democracy.

The First Amendment has promoted an offensive or hate speech, which has been exacerbated by digital communication. The forms of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment include obscene material, plagiarism, defamation, and true threats (ACLU, 2018). Therefore, individuals are free to make remarks that can cause harm due to the assumed protection of the First Amendment. Offensive speech is pervasive and can cause extreme consequences. A Humans Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur posits that failure to instantly respond to hate speech can not only make the targeted minorities vulnerable but can also influence by making them indifferent to the manifestations of hate speech (Olteanu et al., 2018). While social media sites provide platforms for interactions, these communication tools have paved way to offensive speech that discriminates against race, social status, gender, ethnicity, and appearance among other social categories. Olteanu et al. note establish that the prevalence and severity of hate speech tend to escalate during trigger events like court decisions on extreme subjects, terrorist attacks, or political events. For instance, Islamophobia, which is the prejudice against Muslims, blossomed after the 911 attack.

Freedom of expression has spurred violence between groups of people across the nation. For instance, Myanmar is one of the countries in the world with the cheapest mobile devices as well as better networks. The combination of the lowest mobile phone penetration and the freedom of expression have spawned violence against the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine (Morrison, 2012). Anti-Rohingya websites are used to share offensive messages about the Rohingya, thus, forcing the targeted group to retaliate. Resultantly, Rakhine has experienced extensive destruction of properties including homes and displacing the residents (Morrison, 2012). The media is also known to play a major role in the incitement of violence, including the Nazi Germany violence and the fall of Yugoslavia. When the internet and media content on violence is not censored, it is likely to elicit emotions and incite violence.

The interaction of federalism and free speech has a significant impact on society. The First Amendment has played a central role in the success of the civil rights movement hence democracy. Although the free speech law has caused harm regarding offensive speech, its positive impact on society is more salient. The civil rights movement, which grew on the foundation of free speech, is responsible for some of the most important rights, including the Civil Rights Act (1964), Voting Rights Act (1965), and Civil Rights Act – Fair Housing Act (1968). The Civil Rights Act abolished legalized racial segregation in America and criminalized racial discrimination in public accommodation, employment, transportation, or education (Khan Academy, 2018). The law has promoted racial integration in America, which has improved the lives of the minorities. The Voting Rights Act allowed African Americans to vote while the Fair Housing Act prohibited racial, sexual, national, and religious discrimination in the sale, rent, or financing of housing (Khan Academy, 2018). These laws have promoted democracy and equality.

Free speech is one of the social areas that have been greatly influenced by federalism. The adoption of the First Amendment law allowed Americans to express their ideas without governmental restraint freely. Plagiarism, defamation, obscene material, and true threats are the only forms of communication criminalized under the First Amendment. The freedom of expression has both benefited and harmed Americans. The First Amendment, alongside the courts’ support, empowered the civil rights movement to speak against injustices in the society. As a result, the movement successfully pushed for the social change, including allowing Blacks to vote, eradicating segregation, and delivering fair housing. On the other side, freedom of speech has encouraged offensive speech, especially among internet and social media users, which has in turn engendered violence. Despite this setback, the First Amendment has massively contributed to democracy and other related phenomena like racial integration and equality.




ACLU. (2018). Freedom of expression. ACLU, 10. Retrieved from

Hudson Jr., D.L. (2002, Sep 16). Civil rights and First Amendment. Freedom Forum Institute. Retrieved from

Khan Academy. (2018). Introduction to the civil rights movement. Khan Academy. Retrieved from


Morrison, J. (2012, Nov 12). Dark side of free speech. YaleGlobal Online. Retrieved from

Olteanu, A. Castillo, C., Boy, J. & Varshney, K.R. (2018, April 16). The effect of extremist on hateful speech online. Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Retrieved from