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Laws Protecting Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, and Human Rights

Civil and Human Rights LawThe terms civil liberties, civil rights, and human rights address three distinct, but sometimes overlapping, ideals. In brief, here are the differences in how the three terms are used:

  • Civil liberties are protections against tyrannical government actions; they include fundamental rights like freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
  • Civil rights are legal rights that protect individuals from discrimination based on race, sex, and other characteristics.
  • Human rights are rights you are born with–you have them simply by being human, whether or not they have been put into the form of a law in the country where you reside. These are the most fundamental rights and considered to be the necessities for human existence. They overlap to a large degree with civil liberties and include the rights to free expression, fair trial, and education, as well as the right to protection from torture.

Civil Liberties

What Are the Basic Civil Liberties?

Civil liberties are freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution that protect us from tyranny. The five basic civil liberties, contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, are:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom to exercise religious beliefs
  • Right to peaceably assemble
  • Freedom to petition the government

Other civil liberties are protected in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution), and over the years, courts have recognized additional civil liberties protected by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. These other constitutionally protected rights include:

  • The right to privacy
  • The right to remain silent in a police interrogation
  • The right to be free from unreasonable searches of your home
  • The right to a fair court trial
  • The right to marry
  • The right to vote

Civil Rights

What Are Civil Rights?

In the United States, civil rights include freedom from discrimination based on certain “suspect classifications,” such as race, gender, age, disability, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or social class. Civil rights are protected by a network of laws, including federal and state statutes; local ordinances; federal and state constitutions; and federal and state judicial opinions (common law).

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

In 1963, the United States saw significant racial unrest in reaction to school busing and the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. In response, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress to put together a comprehensive civil rights law to guarantee certain basic rights to all Americans, regardless of race. That law, enacted in 1964, bans any discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, or national origin. It includes provisions prohibiting such discrimination in employment, in public accommodations (such as hotels and motels), and in any federally funded programs. The law further facilitates the desegregation of schools and protects basic voting rights.

Civil Rights Guaranteed by the 14th Amendment

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the law.” It prohibits states from passing laws that limit or interfere with the “privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” It also ensures that no person shall be deprived of “life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”

The Equal Protection Clause, the most litigated language in the Constitution, mandates that all states treat all citizens equally under the law. It has been used in legal arguments ranging from discrimination in access to rental housing to same-sex marriage and presidential elections.

Protecting Federal Civil Rights

Protecting your civil rights through federal action can take two forms:

  • You may file an individual claim in federal court alleging violation of your civil rights; or
  • You may bring your claim to the relevant federal government agency and ask it to investigate or prosecute the claim for you.

In some cases where your civil rights have been violated, you may be required to file a claim with the government before you qualify to file a lawsuit in court. For example, if you’re the victim of workplace discrimination, you must submit a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before you file a private lawsuit.

What Constitutes a Violation of Civil Rights?

Courts have construed a wide range of actions as violations of basic civil rights, including:

  • Discrimination based on a recognized “suspect classification,” such as race or sex, even when the discrimination is unintentional
  • The refusal of service based on a suspect classification
  • Refusal of access to public facilities, events, and resources because of a suspect classification
  • Harassment of any kind, including sexual harassment, verbal intimidation, threats of violence or the creation of a hostile work environment based on a suspect classification

Human Rights

What Is Human Rights Law?

Human rights law seeks to ensure that all beings on the planet have access to certain amenities and resources, regardless of any factor other than their shared humanity. Human rights include access to food, gainful employment, education, healthcare, and liberty. Human rights law is primarily international in nature and exists in two forms:

  • Treaties between two or more countries that are binding on the parties; and
  • Customary international laws, which recognize observed customs.

Although non-binding, customary international laws can be authoritative references.

The United Nations set forth the basic standards in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The United States ratified this declaration in 1992; however, the UDHR is not binding human rights law.

What Human Rights Are Recognized?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes 30 articles identifying basic human rights. Among the most fundamental are:

  • The right to life and liberty
  • Freedom from slavery and/or torture
  • The right to secure an education and be gainfully employed
  • The right to freely express opinions or ideas
  • Freedom of religious belief
  • The right to recognition as a person before the law, as well as equal treatment before the law
  • Freedom from arbitrary arrest and exile
  • Freedom from interference with home, family, or privacy

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