ACLU History: The Age of Protest: A Banner Era for the First Amendment

September 1, 2010
Throughout the 1960s and 70s, the ACLU was involved in many other landmark free speech cases that reflected the social upheavals and changing mores of the time. Three such notable Supreme Court cases were:

Tinker v. Des Moines – (1969) The Court ruled that suspending public school students for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War was unconstitutional since students do not 'shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.'

Cohen v. California (1971) – The Court ruled that the conviction of an anti-war protester for disturbing the peace because he wore a jacket with the words, 'Fuck the Draft,' was unconstitutional; hence the government cannot prohibit speech just because it is 'offensive.'

Miller v. California (1973) – The Court ruled that while art may be restricted where it violates the 'contemporary community standards' for obscenity, '[t]he First Amendment protects works which, taken as a whole, have serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value, regardless of whether the government, or a majority of the people, approve of the ideas these works represent.'

Not every case reached the Supreme Court, and many issues were fought in the lower courts, as well as in the court of public opinion, as people began to appreciate the value of a society that respected, rather than repressed, free expression. Even more importantly, Americans began to understand that without the First Amendment, all our other constitutional rights are difficult to invoke. How can one be informed about government misdeeds without a free press? How can one protest such misdeeds without the right to assemble freely? And how can one create or enjoy books, art, music and films when censors have unrestricted authority to shut you down?


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