As it celebrates 20 years on Independence Mall, the National Constitution Center is opening a new gallery dedicated to the First Amendment.
Opening Sept. 6, “The First Amendment” focuses on the five liberties guaranteed in the initial item of the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, freedom to petition, and freedom of religion.
It’s a permanent addition to the museum, and it’s also the first part of a larger renovation ahead of the U.S. Constitution’s 250th anniversary in 2037. (Other stages of that redesign have yet to be announced.)
The new 1,500-square-foot exhibit is organized into sections that offer information about each guaranteed right, and how the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in cases concerning those freedoms.
There’s a mix of historical artifacts and interactive content, like a touch screen that lets you flip through the current front pages of newspapers from around the world, or kiosks that quiz you on whether or not a particular scenario is protected speech.
What shouldn’t you miss if you stop by the exhibit? Here’s an overview of interesting items that caught our eye.
George Washington’s letter reassuring the Quakers
The section on religious freedom features a piece of 1789 correspondence pulled from Haverford College’s special collections. The handwritten letter from President George Washington assures a group of Quakers, who were concerned about a potential lack of religious freedom, that the Bill of Rights awaiting ratification from the states would protect people’s rights to freely choose their own beliefs.
Nearby, you can find a display explaining the various religious protections that existed (or didn’t) in each respective state constitution at the time the U.S. Constitution was being drafted.
A pitcher memorializing Elijah Lovejoy
Among the artifacts related to freedom of the press is a pitcher that dates back to about 1840. It commemorates Elijah Lovejoy, a newspaper editor and abolitionist who refused to back down from writing antislavery editorials. Originally in Missouri, he moved his press to Illinois to avoid mob violence. But the mob followed, and he ended up being killed during an attack on the building.
The ceramic pitcher has the 45 words of the First Amendment inscribed on it.
Artifacts from social movements
In the section dedicated to freedom of assembly are several artifacts from marches, rallies, and protests.
A pennant on loan from Freedom Forum’s Newseum Collection was carried by one of the 200k+ attendees at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
There’s a pamphlet from the fourth annual Reminder Day in 1968, a pre-Stonewall LGBTQ demonstration that took place at Independence Hall.
Also displayed are artifacts arguing for and against the failed Equal Rights Amendment, which attempted to enshrine equal rights for women. A 1960s flier touts a demonstration that was part of the Delano Grape Strike, alongside a “boycott grapes” button from the late 60s.
A touch-screen table that uses objects to explain SCOTUS cases
This is one of the exhibit’s interactive elements. You can learn about several landmark religious liberty cases by dragging and dropping one of a handful of virtual objects that seem random — a football, a piece of cake, a school bus, a mask, an American flag.
Pick one and drag it to a designated area on the table, and information about a related Supreme Court case will pop up. You can tap through it at your leisure.
A timeline of free speech rights and decisions
You can get a taste of what’s been considered protected speech throughout history, and what hasn’t, by following a timeline that starts along one wall and ends on a different one.
It gives an overview of important cases that have defined free speech rights in certain situations and at certain points in American history, stretching from the trial of Matthew Lyon in 1791 to Snyder v. Phelps in 2011. It’s interactive too, so you can guess whether you think something was considered protected speech or not before revealing the right answer.
Located a few blocks north of Independence Hall, the National Constitution Center is typically open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission costs $19 for adults; $15 for seniors (ages 65+), college students, veterans, and youth (ages 6–18); and $0 for active military, museum members, and children ages 0–5. All exhibits are included in the ticket price.
Want to visit at no cost? All visitors on Sept. 17 and 18 will receive free admission to the museum in honor of Constitution Day.
Disclosure: The National Constitution Center is an underwriter for Billy Penn’s parent company.