Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Writer's Guide to the First Amendment: When Actions Speak Louder than Words

As writers, we deal with words. After all, the pen is mightier than the sword, as Edward George Bulwer-Lytton said. So why do we care if the First Amendment applies to actions?

Because words aren’t always enough. Sometimes actions say it more powerfully.

It’s 1984, and you want to protest the policies of the Reagan administration. You could write a letter to your Congresswoman, but will she read it? Or you could write an article, but what if every magazine you submit it to rejects it?

There has to be some way to get the administration’s attention.

Then someone suggests burning the American flag. Unfortunately, the law says that’s a crime.

You do it anyway and get arrested. The case goes all the way to the Supreme Court—and you win! When action is a form of expression, it is protected by the First Amendment. (See Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989) and U.S. v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990).)

Of course, the government can still regulate the time, place, and manner of the expression. (See my March 27, 2014 post.) But it can’t regulate the expression itself.

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but actions do speak louder than words.

Still, you’re a writer, not a protester. You want to know how the First Amendment applies to the words you put on paper.

Stay tune for next month’s post on freedom of the press.


Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Her most recent book, Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), is a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection. Kathryn is also the author of In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion (FaithWalk Publishing 2006) and numerous articles. You can learn more about Kathryn at

1 comment:

  1. I'd say with bated breath, but I can't hold it that long, Kathryn. And I fear in our lifetime our act of writing may very well be protesting.