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Civil Rights vs. Civil Liberties

Civil Rights vs. Civil Liberties

The terms "civil rights" and "civil liberties" are often used interchangeably, but their meanings are distinct. Civil liberties are freedoms guaranteed to you by the Constitution to protect you from tyranny. One key civil liberty, for example, is the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Civil rights, in contrast, are the legal rights detailed in federal laws and statutes that protect you from discrimination. An example of a civil right is the right to be free from employment discrimination based on a protected factor.

You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to a fair court trial. You also have the right to vote and the right to privacy. Americans are generally familiar with these rights, but are they considered civil rights or civil liberties?

This article explores the differences between civil rights and civil liberties, with specific laws corresponding to each term.

Civil Rights

Civil rights concern the basic right to be free from unequal treatment based on certain protected characteristics. Civil rights are generally associated with protecting minority groups such as women and African Americans. Protected characteristics include:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Disability
  • National origin
  • Sexual orientation

Civil rights protect you in numerous settings. These include:

  • Employment
  • Education
  • Housing
  • Access to public facilities

A civil rights violation occurs in designated situations when a person experiences discrimination based on a protected characteristic. Discrimination can come in the form of segregation, for instance.

Most civil rights laws are established by the federal government through federal laws enacted by Congress or by case law. Many civil rights laws arose as a result of the Civil Rights Movement. Examples include the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Federal courts — and especially the U.S. Supreme Court — play a big role in determining the extent of civil rights protections. Supreme Court cases often clarify, expand, or limit civil rights.

Civil Liberties

Civil liberties concern basic rights and freedoms that are explicitly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution or have been interpreted and inferred by legislatures or the courts. They offer protection from federal or state government action.

Civil liberties include:

  • The right to free speech and freedom of the press, granted by the First Amendment
  • The right to freedom of religion
  • The right to remain silent in a police interrogation
  • The right to be free from unreasonable searches, afforded by the Fourth Amendment
  • The right to a fair trial and due process of law
  • The right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment, granted by the Eighth Amendment
  • The right to vote, afforded by the 15th Amendment
  • The right to bear arms, granted by the Second Amendment

The 14th Amendment's due process clause provides the basis for civil liberties. In contrast, the equal protection clause provides the basis for civil rights.

Civil Rights vs. Civil Liberties

The law differentiates between civil rights and civil liberties. Civil liberties concern the actual basic freedoms. Civil rights concern the treatment of a person regarding certain rights. Unlike civil liberties, under which people enjoy broad-based rights, civil rights contain a protective aspect of those rights based on certain characteristics.

One way to consider the difference between civil rights and civil liberties is to consider:

  1. What right is affected
  2. Whose right is affected

For example, as an employee, you don't have the legal right to a promotion. This is mainly because getting a promotion is not a guaranteed civil liberty. However, as a female employee, you have the legal right to be free from discrimination in being considered for that promotion. You can't legally be denied a promotion based on your gender or any other protected factor. By choosing not to promote a female worker solely based on gender, an employer commits a civil rights violation. In doing so, the employer engages in unlawful employment discrimination based on sex or gender.

Contact a Civil Rights Attorney for Help With Your Legal Claim

Knowing the difference between civil rights and civil liberties can help to determine whether you have a civil rights claim. Do you think your human rights have been violated? You have a right to equal protection of the law. Consider speaking with a civil rights attorney near you to better understand your legal options and protect your individual rights.

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