Civil Liberties and Civil Rights: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Civil Liberties vs Civil Rights

In the United States, we have both civil liberties and civil rights. Many people think the two terms are synonymous. They’re actually different, although sometimes they overlap or even conflict with each other. Basically, civil liberties are those fundamental rights that the Constitution and Bill of Rights guarantee to the citizenry in general. Civil rights, on the other hand, have to do with the right of individuals to remain free from discrimination or unfair treatment by others.

In other words, civil liberties are the broad rights themselves that apply to all citizens. Civil rights are rights that apply to specifically protected groups of people in society. The words “civil rights” come from the Latin “lus civis,” meaning the rights of citizens.

Historical Perspective

A little history is helpful in understanding both civil liberties and civil rights. The Magna Carta (Latin for Great Charter) was a historic document signed by England’s King John in 1215. Written to improve relationships between the king and a group of rebel barons, it set forth some basic rights that the barons would henceforth have, including the right to be free from illegal imprisonment, plus the right to swift justice. The Magna Carta served as the foundational document for the proposition that sovereigns, in this case the king, do not have “divine rights” that allow them to steamroller over the citizenry. Individuals, too, have rights.

Declaration of Independence

Five centuries later, when Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers, wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 declaring the American Colonies’ independence from England, he incorporated the idea of citizens’ fundamental rights as follows: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The Constitution

The Constitution of 1787 followed suit, beginning: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, [sic] promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Many delegates to the Constitutional Convention, however, feared that the Constitution insufficiently addressed individual rights. They refused to ratify it unless amendments were added. Congress, therefore, hammered out 12 such amendments amid strenuous debate. As of December 15, 1791, three-fourths of the states ratified 10 of them, which became known as the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Civil Liberties Overview

As listed in the Bill of Rights, our fundamental civil liberties include the following:

  • Freedom of religion, speech, assembly and a free press (First Amendment)
  • Right to keep and bear arms (Second Amendment)
  • Right against unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials (Fourth Amendment)
  • The right against self-incrimination (Fifth Amendment)
  • Right to a speedy trial by a jury of one’s peers and the assistance of counsel (Sixth Amendment)
  • Right against excessive bail, excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment (Eighth Amendment)

Surprisingly, the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights ever mentions the right to vote. It first appeared in the Fourteenth Amendment, but it wasn’t until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 that the right to vote was extended to women. It further took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure that no one could be denied the right to vote based on his or her race, color or membership in a minority language group.

Civil Rights Overview

The Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 added the following fundamental right: “No State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”. This Amendment forms the basis for all the anti-discrimination laws subsequently passed by the federal government and the states.

Over the years, federal legislation developed protections for individuals based on their race, religion, national origin, color, creed, age, gender, disability, veteran status and citizenship status.

Acts addressing discrimination against these protected groups include the following:

  • Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • Fair Housing Act of 1968
  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973
  • Age Discrimination Act of 1975
  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

Most states have passed laws expanding the rights enumerated in these Acts for their own residents. As an aside, states always have the authority to increase federally protected rights, but never to limit them.

The United States Supreme Court has likewise expanded our civil rights via a string of landmark cases. For instance, its decision in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka impliedly established a universal right to education by declaring that segregated schools, even when supposedly “separate but equal,” were unconstitutional.

In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut established the right to privacy based on the “penumbras” surrounding the Third, Fourth and Ninth Amendments. Roe v. Wade in 1973 then used the right to privacy as the basis for giving pregnant women the “right to choose” to undergo an abortion.

With regard to the right to marry, Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the majority in 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, declared: “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men”. The Court, therefore, struck down Virginia’s law banning interracial marriage. Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 extended marital rights to same-sex couples, mandating that, based on the Fourteenth Amendment, all states must allow same-sex marriage, as well as recognize same-sex marriages performed in any and all other states.

Asserting Your Rights

If you feel that someone has violated one or more of your civil liberties or civil rights, you may wish to consult a civil rights lawyer. These attorneys specialize in cases involving discrimination in the workplace, schools, housing, etc. They also handle cases involving the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers, corrections officials, etc.

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