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Civil liberties in the United States

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Civil liberties in the United States are certain unalienable rights retained by (as opposed to privileges granted to) citizens of the United States under the Constitution of the United States, as interpreted and clarified by the Supreme Court of the United States and lower federal courts.[1] Civil liberties are simply defined as individual legal and constitutional protections from entities more powerful than an individual, for example, parts of the government, other individuals, or corporations. The liberties explicitly defined, make up the Bill of Rights, including freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to privacy.[2] There are also many liberties of people not defined in the Constitution, as stated in the Ninth Amendment: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

The extent of civil liberties and the periphery of the population of the United States who had access to these liberties has expanded over time. For example, the Constitution did not originally define who was eligible to vote, allowing each state to determine who was eligible. In the early history of the U.S., most states allowed only white male adult property owners to vote (about 6% of the population).[3][4][5] The 'Three-Fifths Compromise' allowed the southern slaveholders to consolidate power and maintain slavery in America for eighty years after the ratification of the Constitution.[6] And the Bill of Rights had little impact on judgements by the courts for the first 130 years after ratification.[7]

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  • ✪ Civil Rights & Liberties: Crash Course Government #23
  • ✪ AP Gov Review: Government In America, Chapter 4
  • ✪ AP GOV Explained: Government in America Chapter 4
  • ✪ Civil Liberties in Times of Crisis: Japanese Internment and America Today
  • ✪ Gov Review Video #47: Important Civil Liberties To Know


Hi, I'm Craig, and this is Crash Course Government and Politics, and today we're finally, at long last, moving on from the structures and branches of government and onto the structures and branches of trees. This is a nature show now. Okay, we're not moving on completely, because we're still talking about courts, but today we'll be discussing actual court decisions, and the kind of things that courts rule on, rather than how they do it. That's right, we're moving onto civil rights and civil liberties. [Intro] Okay, first I want to talk about something that I find confusing: the difference between civil rights and civil liberties. Usually in America, we use the terms interchangeably, which adds to the confusion, but lawyers and political scientists draw a distinction, so you should know about it. Then you can go back to calling civil liberties "rights" and civil rights "liberties," and most people won't care, but I'll care. I'll be disappointed in you. So civil liberties are limitations placed on the government. Basically, they are things the government can't do that might interfere with your personal freedom. Civil rights are curbs on the power of majorities to make decisions that would benefit some at the expense of others. Basically, civil rights are guarantees of equal citizenship, and they mean that citizens are protected from discrimination by majorities. Take, for example, same sex marriage. You could think of it as a liberty, except that not everyone is free to marry at any given time. Six year olds can't get married, and you can't marry your sibling. But same sex marriage is a civil rights issue because in the states that don't allow it, the majority of voters is denying something to a minority, creating inequality in the way that the laws work. Now, just to make things more confusing, lawyers often talk about the difference between substantive and procedural liberties, but they usually call them rights instead of liberties. That's a lawyer eagle. A legal eagle. Substantive liberties are limits on what the government can do. For example, the first amendment says that congress shall make no law establishing religion. So this means that they cannot create a national church or declare that Christianity or Islam or Hinduism is the official religion of the US. Procedural liberties are limits on how the government can act. For example, in America in courtroom dramas, there is a presumption that someone is innocent until proven guilty. This presumption means that in criminal cases, juries and judges have to act as though the accused is innocent until the prosecution convinces them otherwise. If they are not convinced, the accused person doesn't go to prison. So now that we understand the difference between civil rights and civil liberties perfectly because of my amazing explanation, let's focus on liberties and try to figure out what they are and where they come from, with some help from Thought Bubble. So civil liberties are contained in the incredibly unhelpfully named "Bill of Rights," which isn't even called that in the Constitution. It's just a name that we give to the first 10 amendments. The 9th amendment is included to remind us that the list of liberties and/or rights in the other amendments isn't exhaustive. There might be other rights out there, but the constitution doesn't specifically say what they are. Thanks constitution. In some cases, it's pretty clear. The first amendment, for example, says that "congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or abridging the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press to assemble or to infringe the right to petition the government for redress of grievances." Pretty straight forward. But other cases are not so clear. The second amendment says "the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," but it doesn't say by whom. Same thing with the 5th amendment guarantees against self incrimination. Could congress force you to incriminate yourself? How would they do that? And the 8th amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments, like presumably shock pens, but it doesn't say who is forbidden from cruelly and unusually punishing. My mom wasn't forbidden from keeping me from playing video games. As usual, we might expect the Supreme Court to sort out this mess, but initially they were no help at all. In a case that you've probably never heard of, called Barron vs. Baltimore, decided in 1833, the court said that the Bill of Rights applied to the national, meaning federal government, not to the states. They said that every American has dual citizenship, but not the good kind. They meant you are a citizen of the US and of the state in which you reside, and basically that the constitution only protected you from the federal government. In other words, if the state of Indiana wanted to punish me cruelly or unusually, they could. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So Barron vs. Baltimore left Americans in a bit of a civil liberties pickle, and not the good kind of pickle. They were protected from the national government doing terrible things, like quartering troops in their homes, but not from the state doing the same thing. And since the state was close to home and the national government was far away and, compared with today, tiny and weak, these protections were pretty weaksauce, so what happened to change this? I hope something, because I like a zesty government sauce. The 14th amendment and the Supreme Court happened. After the Civil War, as part of the reconstruction, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were added to the constitution. Of these, the 14th is the most important, probably the most important of all amendments. What does it say? Well the first section, which is the one that really matters, and I'm not going to read the whole thing okay? It reads "all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States. Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." What this means is that the federal government's like: "Listen states, you can't be dumb. Just stop it. Okay? We're all in this together. Alright?" It means states can't deny equal protection, civil rights, or due process, which in this case encompasses civil liberties. This in theory makes it impossible for states to infringe upon the liberties and the Bill of Rights. But the legal system being what it is, it's not quite that simple. Did you think it'd be simple? The Supreme Court could have just ruled that all the rights and liberties in the Bill of Rights applied to the states, which seems to be what the 14th amendment implies, but they didn't. Instead they ruled that each of the rights or liberties had to be incorporated against the states on a case-by-case basis. This is a concept called selective incorporation, and it supposedly reserves more power to the states. What it really means is that when the people thought that the states were violating liberties, they had to go to the Supreme Court, which by now has incorporated almost every clause in the Bill of Rights against the states. You want examples? We've got them. In the famous case of Gitlow vs. New York, the court ruled that the first amendment protection of the freedom of speech could not be violated by a state. In this case, it was New York, but once a liberty is incorporated against one state, it's incorporated against all of them. In Mapp vs. Ohio, the court ruled that states couldn't use evidence gathered from warrantless searches. In Benton vs. Maryland, the right against Double Jeopardy, being tried for the same crime twice, was incorporated against the states. By now, almost all the rights and liberties mentioned in the first ten Amendments have been incorporated against the states. This means that individuals are protected from all their governments taking away their liberties, and that's a good thing. I loves my liberties. So we'll be talking about civil rights and civil liberties for a number of episodes, and this topic, while confusing, can be lots of fun. We might play liberties bingo, or civil rights kickball. I don't know what those things are, but they sound like fun. The main thing to remember is that going all the way back to the framers, Americans have been concerned about a too powerful government taking away citizens' freedoms. Yes, these liberties apply mostly to citizens, although some do apply to non-citizens, too. In order to put limits on government, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in 1789, but this didn't mean that those limits applied to the states, probably because the founders expected states to be the main protectors of rights, and in fact, many state constitutions have provisions that copy or in some ways, go beyond what's in the US Constitution. Only after the 14th Amendment was passed, following the Civil War, did the national government get around to addressing this issue of states denying people's liberties. Even then, it took numerous court cases for us to get to the point that most civil liberties that we assume cannot be taken away by the government have actually been guaranteed through the process of selective incorporation. It's taken a long time to get where we are, and there's still a long way to go. Protecting civil liberties requires vigilant citizens to be aware of the ways that government is overstepping its bounds, but that's only half the equation. It's also vital that our majority pay attention the civil rights of others, and that we ensure that everyone is afforded the same protections and benefits promised by our system of law. Thanks for watching. I'll see you next time. Crash Course Government and Politics is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. Support for Crash Course US Government comes from Voqal. Voqal supports non-profits that use technology and media to advance social equity. Learn more about their mission and initiatives at Crash Course is made with the help of these nice people who are innocent until proven guilty. Thanks for watching.


United States Constitution

Freedom of religion

Free Exercise Clause

The text of Amendment I to the United States Constitution, ratified December 15, 1791, states that:

"Congress shall make no law... prohibiting the free exercise thereof;"[8]

— United States Constitution, Amendment I

Freedom of expression

Free Speech Clause

The text of Amendment I to the United States Constitution, ratified December 15, 1791, states that:

"Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech,"[8]

— United States Constitution, Amendment I

Free Press Clause

The text of Amendment I to the United States Constitution, ratified December 15, 1791, states that:

"Congress shall make no law... abridging... the press,"[8]

— United States Constitution, Amendment I

Free Assembly Clause

The text of Amendment I to the United States Constitution, ratified December 15, 1791, states that:

"Congress shall make no law... abridging... the right of the people peaceably to assemble,"[8]

— United States Constitution, Amendment I

Petition Clause

The text of Amendment I to the United States Constitution, ratified December 15, 1791, states that:

"Congress shall make no law... abridging... the right of the people... to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."[8]

— United States Constitution, Amendment I

Free speech exceptions

The following types of speech are not protected constitutionally: defamation or false statements, child pornography, obscenity, damaging the national security interests, verbal acts, and fighting words. Because these categories fall outside of the First Amendment privileges, the courts can legally restrict or criminalize any expressive act within them. Other expressions, including threat of bodily harm or publicizing illegal activity, may also be ruled illegal.[9]

Right to keep and bear arms

The text of Amendment II to the United States Constitution, ratified December 15, 1791, states that:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."[8]

— United States Constitution, Amendment II

Sexual freedom

The concept of sexual freedom includes a broad range of different rights that are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. The idea of sexual freedom has sprung more from the popular opinion of society in more recent years, and has had very little Constitutional backing. The following liberties are included under sexual freedom: sexual expression, sexual choices, sexual education, reproductive justice, and sexual health.[10] Sexual freedom in general is considered an implied procedure, and is not mentioned in the Constitution.

Sexual freedoms include the freedom to have consensual sex with whomever a person chooses, at any time, for any reason, provided the person is of the age of majority. Marriage is not required, nor are there any requirements as to the gender or number of people you have sex with. Sexual freedom includes the freedom to have private consensual homosexual sex (Lawrence v. Texas).

Equal protection

Equal protection prevents the government from creating laws that are discriminatory in application or effect.

Right to vote

The text of Amendment XIV to the United States Constitution, ratified July 9, 1868, states that:

"when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one (eighteen) years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one (eighteen) years of age in such State."[8]

— United States Constitution, Article XIV

The text of Amendment XV to the United States Constitution, ratified February 3, 1870, states that:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."[8]

— United States Constitution, Article XV

The text of Amendment XIX to the United States Constitution, ratified August 18, 1919, states that:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."[8]

— United States Constitution, Amendment XIX

The text of Amendment XXIII to the United States Constitution, ratified January 23, 1964, states that:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax."[8]

— United States Constitution, Amendment XXIII

The text of Amendment XXVI to the United States Constitution, ratified July 1, 1971, states that:

"The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age."[8]

— United States Constitution, Amendment XXVI

Right to interstate travel

Right to parent one's children

Protection on the high seas from pirates

Right to privacy

Right to marriage

In the 1967 United States Supreme Court ruling in the case of Loving v. Virginia found a fundamental right to marriage, regardless of race. In the 2015 United States Supreme Court ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges found a fundamental right to marriage, regardless of gender.

Right of self-defense

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Expansion of Rights and Liberties - The Right of Suffrage". Online Exhibit: The Charters of Freedom. National Archives. Archived from the original on July 6, 2016. Retrieved April 21, 2015.
  4. ^ Murrin, John M.; Johnson, Paul E.; McPherson, James M.; Fahs, Alice; Gerstle, Gary (2012). Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People (6th ed.). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. p. 296. ISBN 9780495904991.
  5. ^ Janda, Kenneth; Berry, Jeffrey M.; Goldman, Jerry (2008). The challenge of democracy: government in America (9. ed., update ed.). Houghton Mifflin. p. 207. ISBN 9780618990948.
  6. ^ "We Hold These Truths to be Self-evident;" An Interdisciplinary Analysis of the Roots of Racism & slavery in America Kenneth N. Addison; Introduction P. xxii
  7. ^ "The Bill Of Rights: A Brief History". ACLU. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k United States Constitution 
  9. ^
  10. ^

Further reading

This page was last edited on 18 March 2019, at 15:09
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