December 13, 2010
Painting depicting the signing of the U.S. Constitution. (Architect of the Capitol collection)

Painting depicting the signing of the U.S. Constitution. (Architect of the Capitol collection)

In News History: Bill of Rights Day

When the United States ratified the Bill of Rights in 1791, it became the first country in the history of the world to guarantee the right to press freedom in its Constitution.

The Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments to the Constitution — came about because citizens, distrustful of governmental power, demanded that basic freedoms be guaranteed. Among those freedoms was freedom of the press. The citizenry understood that a free press could be used effectively to challenge the government should it grow too powerful or abusive. That often-adversarial relationship between the press and government continues to this day.

The first Congress originally proposed 12 amendments to the Constitution. Protecting the rights of citizens was such a bold, historic move that the Gazette of the United States printed the 12 amendments on its front page in 1789. An original copy of the newspaper is displayed in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

What we know today as the First Amendment initially was the Third Amendment. Preceding it were amendments about the size of Congress and congressional pay raises. When the first two amendments failed to win ratification, the amendments were renumbered, moving the Third Amendment into the No. 1 position. The amendment about pay raises was eventually ratified in 1992 as the 27th Amendment.

The first 10 amendments to the Constitution were added on Dec. 15, 1791, and have endured more than 200 years later.

  • The First Amendment protects the freedoms of speech, press and religion and the rights of assembly and petition.
  • The Second Amendment protects the right to bear arms.
  • The Third Amendment protects homeowners from quartering troops in their homes, except during war.
  • The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure.
  • The Fifth Amendment protects our right of due process, against self-incrimination and double jeopardy and prevents the government from seizing private property without proper compensation.
  • The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a speedy trial.
  • The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by jury in civil matters.
  • The Eighth Amendment protects us from cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail.
  • The Ninth Amendment guarantees rights that are not specifically outlined in the Bill of Rights.
  • The Tenth Amendment protects the rights of the states.

A 74-foot-tall stone tablet containing the 45 words of the First Amendment is one of the most prominent features of the Newseum’s façade. It reads:

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.

An exhibit on the five freedoms of the First Amendment is displayed in the Cox Enterprises First Amendment Gallery. To learn more about the First Amendment and its challenges, visit firstamendmentcenter.org and 1forall.us.

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Related Links:
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