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September 06, 2023

National Constitution Center's new First Amendment gallery displays letter George Washington wrote to Quakers

The museum also will host author Salman Rushdie for a discussion about free speech and the threats against it later this month

Arts & Culture Museums
First Amendment Constitution Center Jason Miczek/National Constitution Center

The National Constitution Center has opened the First Amendment gallery, the first permanent addition to its main exhibit since the museum opened in 2003.

As part of its 20th anniversary celebration, the National Constitution Center has opened its first exhibit that explores the importance of the First Amendment and the freedoms it protects. 

The First Amendment gallery, a 1,500-square-foot exhibit that opened Wednesday, displays artifacts highlighting freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly and petition in the United States. The interactive exhibit allows visitors to test their knowledge of what is and isn't protected under the First Amendment.

Among the artifacts is a letter George Washington wrote to the Quakers in 1789, an inscribed pen given to socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs while he was imprisoned for violating the Espionage Act, handwritten notes from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and a peace-sign armband worn by students calling for an end to the Vietnam War. 

There are also displays about a Southern antislavery newspaper that was shut down before the onset of the Civil War, the New York Times' publication of the classified Pentagon Papers, a pennant from the 1963 March on Washington and a pamphlet from the Reminder Day demonstration, in support of gay rights, held outside Independence Hall in 1968. 

"The five freedoms guaranteed and protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution go to the heart of who we are as Americans and human beings," said Mike George, vice chair of the Board of Trustees of the National Constitution Center. "Our most intense public debates, from the founding until today, have centered on the scope of these freedoms, and the importance of exploring current controversies over free speech in a spirit of open and respectful dialogue has never been greater." 

The First Ammendment gallery is the first permanent addition to the National Constitution Center's main exhibit, The Story of We The People, since the museum opened at 525 Arch St. on Independence Day in 2003. 

In conjuction with gallery opening, the center is hosting the National First Amendment Summit on Sept. 13. Author Salman Rushdie will be joined by Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, for a discussion about the importance of free speech and threats against the freedoms protected by the First Amendment. 

Then on Sept. 18, Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, will moderate a discussion about religious liberty with constitutional law experts Marci Hamilton and Michael McConnell. That day, admission to the museum will be free in observance of Constitution Day.

The National Constitution Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $19 for adults and $15 for youth, college students, seniors and veterans.