What Are Civil Liberties?

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Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Define civil liberties and civil rights
  • Describe the origin of civil liberties in the U.S. context
  • Identify the key positions on civil liberties taken at the Constitutional Convention
  • Explain the Civil War origin of concern that the states should respect civil liberties

The U.S. Constitution—in particular, the first ten amendments that form the Bill of Rights—protects the freedoms and rights of individuals. It does not limit this protection just to citizens or adults; instead, in most cases, the Constitution simply refers to “persons,” which over time has grown to mean that even children, visitors from other countries, and immigrants—permanent or temporary, legal or undocumented—enjoy the same freedoms when they are in the United States or its territories as adult citizens do. So, whether you are a Japanese tourist visiting Disney World or someone who has stayed beyond the limit of days allowed on your visa, you do not sacrifice your liberties. In everyday conversation, we tend to treat freedoms, liberties, and rights as interchangeable—similar to how separation of powers and checks and balances are often used as if they are interchangeable, when in fact they are distinct concepts.

*Watch this video to learn more about civil rights and liberties in the United States.

DEFINING CIVIL LIBERTIES

Three civil rights activists, from left to right, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Charlton Heston.
Figure 1. Actors and civil rights activists Sidney Poitier (left), Harry Belafonte (center), and Charlton Heston (right) on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, during the March on Washington. (credit: National Archives ARC Identifier: 542061)

To be more precise in their language, political scientists and legal experts make a distinction between civil liberties and civil rights, even though the Constitution has been interpreted to protect both. We typically envision civil liberties as being limitations on government power, intended to protect freedoms that governments may not legally intrude on. For example, the First Amendment denies the government the power to prohibit “the free exercise” of religion. This means that neither states nor the national government can forbid people to follow a religion of their choice, even if politicians and judges think the religion is misguided, blasphemous, or otherwise inappropriate. Unlike most of the rest of the world at the time, U.S. citizens could even create their own faiths and recruit followers to it (subject to the U.S. Supreme Court deeming it a religion), even if both society and government disapprove of its tenets. That said, the way you practice your religion, like any other practice, may be regulated if it impinges on the rights of others. To return to the previous example, religious communities may believe their faith will protect them and loved ones from disease, but they may not have the right to both not vaccinate their children and have those children publicly educated, where they would pose a risk to others.  The Eighth Amendment says the government cannot impose “cruel and unusual punishments” on individuals for their criminal acts. Although the definitions of cruel and unusual have expanded over the years, the courts have generally and consistently interpreted this provision as making it unconstitutional for government officials to torture suspects. As we will see later in this chapter, courts are currently debating the degree to which extended solitary confinement and certain forms of capital punishment might count as cruel and unusual.

Civil rights, on the other hand, are guarantees that government officials will treat people equally and that decisions will be made on the basis of merit rather than race, gender, or other personal characteristics. Because of the Constitution’s civil rights guarantee, it is unlawful for any publicly-funded entity, such as a school or state university, or even a landlord or potential landlord to treat people differently based on their race, ethnicity, age, sex, or national origin. In the 1960s and 1970s, many states had separate schools where only students of a certain race or gender were able to study. However, the courts decided that these policies violated the civil rights of students who could not be admitted because of those rules.[1] In 2017, the Trump administration began enacting a policy at border entries in El Paso that entailed separating undocumented parents and children as they entered the United States. They expanded that policy in 2018. Today, the government continues to try to reunite families who were separated during that time.[2]

The idea that Americans—indeed, people in general—have fundamental rights and liberties was at the core of the arguments in favor of their independence. In writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Thomas Jefferson drew on the ideas of John Locke to express the colonists’ belief that they had certain inalienable or natural rights that no ruler had the power or authority to deny to their subjects. It was a scathing legal indictment of King George III for violating the colonists’ liberties. Although the Declaration of Independence does not guarantee specific freedoms, its language was instrumental in inspiring many of the states to adopt protections for civil liberties and rights in their own constitutions and in expressing principles of the founding era that have resonated in the United States since its independence. In particular, Jefferson’s words “All men are created equal” became the centerpiece of struggles for the rights of women and minorities.

CIVIL LIBERTIES AND THE CONSTITUTION

The Constitution as written in 1787 did not include a Bill of Rights, although the idea of including one was proposed and, after a brief discussion, dismissed in the final week of the Constitutional Convention. The framers of the Constitution believed they faced much more pressing concerns than the protection of civil rights and liberties, most notably keeping the fragile union together in the light of internal unrest and external threats.

Moreover, the framers thought that they had adequately covered rights issues in the main body of the document. Indeed, the Federalists did include in the Constitution some protections against legislative acts that might restrict the liberties of citizens, based on the history of real and perceived abuses by both British kings and parliaments as well as royal governors. In Article I, Section 9, the Constitution limits the power of Congress in three ways: prohibiting the passage of bills of attainder, prohibiting ex post facto laws, and limiting the ability of Congress to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.

A bill of attainder is a law that convicts or punishes someone for a crime without a trial, a tactic used fairly frequently in England against the king’s enemies. Prohibition of such laws means that the U.S. Congress cannot simply punish people who are unpopular or seem to be guilty of crimes. An ex post facto law has a retroactive effect: it can be used to punish crimes that were not crimes at the time they were committed, or it can be used to increase the severity of punishment after the fact.

Finally, the writ of habeas corpus is used in our common-law legal system to demand that a neutral judge decide whether someone has been lawfully detained. Particularly in times of war, or even in response to threats against national security, the government has held suspected enemy agents without access to civilian courts, often without access to lawyers or a defense, seeking instead to try them before military tribunals or detain them indefinitely without trial. For example, during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln detained suspected Confederate saboteurs and sympathizers in Union-controlled states and attempted to have them tried in military courts, leading the Supreme Court to rule in Ex parte Milligan that the government could not bypass the civilian court system in states where it was operating.[3] In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was the lone dissenter in the Abrams v. United States decision that convicted four young antiwar activists for pamphleteering against the U.S. involvement in the Russian Civil War, which now would be exercised as a clear case of freedom of speech.

During World War II, the Roosevelt administration interned Japanese Americans and had other suspected enemy agents—including U.S. citizens—tried by military courts rather than by the civilian justice system, a choice the Supreme Court upheld in Ex parte Quirin.[4] More recently, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Bush and Obama administrations detained suspected terrorists captured both within and outside the United States and sought to avoid trials in civilian courts and surveilled U.S. citizens to detect threats. Hence, there have been times in our history when national security issues trumped individual liberties.

Group of people in a military commission, seated in chairs around a number of tables arranged in a U shape.
Figure 2. Richard Quirin and seven other trained German saboteurs had once lived in the United States and had secretly returned in June 1942. Upon their capture, a military commission (shown here) convicted the men—six of them received death sentences. Ex parte Quirin set a precedent for the trial by military commission of any unlawful combatant against the United States. (credit: Library of Congress)

Debate has always swirled over these issues. The Federalists reasoned that the limited set of enumerated powers of Congress, along with the limitations on those powers in Article I, Section 9, would suffice, and no separate bill of rights was needed. Writing as Publius in Federalist No. 84, Alexander Hamilton argued that the Constitution was “merely intended to regulate the general political interests of the nation” rather than to concern itself with “the regulation of every species of personal and private concerns.” Hamilton went on to argue that listing some rights might actually be dangerous, because it would provide a pretext for people to claim that rights not included in such a list were not protected. Later, James Madison, in his speech introducing the proposed amendments that would become the Bill of Rights, acknowledged another Federalist argument: “It has been said, that a bill of rights is not necessary, because the establishment of this government has not repealed those declarations of rights which are added to the several state constitutions.”[5] For that matter, the Articles of Confederation had not included a specific listing of rights either.

Anti-Federalists argued that the Federalists’ position was incorrect and perhaps even insincere. The Anti-Federalists believed provisions such as the so-called elastic clause in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution would allow Congress to legislate on matters well beyond the limited ones foreseen by the Constitution’s authors. Thus, they held that a bill of rights was necessary. One of the Anti-Federalists, Brutus, whom most scholars believe to be Robert Yates, wrote, “The powers, rights, and authority, granted to the general government by this Constitution, are as complete, with respect to every object to which they extend, as that of any state government—It reaches to every thing which concerns human happiness—Life, liberty, and property, are under its control [sic]. There is the same reason, therefore, that the exercise of power, in this case, should be restrained within proper limits, as in that of the state governments.”[6] The experience of the past two centuries has suggested that the Anti-Federalists may have been correct in this regard; while the states retain a great deal of importance, the scope and powers of the national government are much broader today than in 1787—likely beyond even the imaginings of the Federalists themselves.

The struggle to have rights clearly delineated and the decision of the framers to omit a bill of rights nearly derailed the ratification process. While some of the states were willing to ratify without any further guarantees, in some of the larger states—New York and Virginia in particular—the Constitution’s lack of specified rights became a serious point of contention. The Constitution could go into effect with the support of only nine states, but the Federalists knew it could not be effective without the participation of the largest states. To secure majorities in favor of ratification in New York and Virginia, as well as Massachusetts, they agreed to consider incorporating provisions suggested by the ratifying states as amendments to the Constitution.

Ultimately, James Madison delivered on this promise by proposing a package of amendments in the First Congress, drawing from the Declaration of Rights in the Virginia state constitution, suggestions from the ratification conventions, and other sources. Each of these was extensively debated in both houses of Congress and ultimately proposed as twelve separate amendments for ratification by the states. Ten of the amendments were successfully ratified by the requisite 75 percent of the states and became known as the Bill of Rights.

Figure 3.
Rights and Liberties Protected by the First Ten Amendments
First Amendment Right to freedoms of religion and speech; right to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances
Second Amendment Right to keep and bear arms to maintain a well-regulated militia
Third Amendment Right to not house soldiers during time of war
Fourth Amendment Right to be secure from unreasonable search and seizure
Fifth Amendment Rights in criminal cases, including due process and indictment by grand jury for capital crimes, as well as the right not to testify against oneself
Sixth Amendment Right to a speedy trial by an impartial jury
Seventh Amendment Right to a jury trial in civil cases
Eighth Amendment Right to not face excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishment
Ninth Amendment Rights retained by the people, even if they are not specifically enumerated by the Constitution
Tenth Amendment States’ rights to powers not specifically delegated to the federal government

FINDING A MIDDLE GROUND

Debating the Need for a Bill of Rights

One of the most serious debates between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists was over the necessity of limiting the power of the new federal government with a Bill of Rights. As we saw in this section, the Federalists believed a Bill of Rights was unnecessary—and perhaps even dangerous to liberty, because it might invite violations of rights that weren’t included in it—while the Anti-Federalists thought the national government would prove adept at expanding its powers and influence and that citizens couldn’t depend on the good judgment of Congress alone to protect their rights.

As George Washington’s call for a bill of rights in his first inaugural address suggested, while the Federalists ultimately had to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution in order to win ratification, the Anti-Federalists’ fear that the national government might intrude on civil liberties proved to be prescient. In 1798, at the behest of President John Adams during the Quasi-War with France, Congress passed a series of four laws collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. These were drafted to allow the president to imprison or deport foreign citizens he believed were “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” and to restrict speech and newspaper articles that were critical of the federal government or its officials; the laws were primarily used against members and supporters of the opposition Democratic-Republican Party.

State laws and constitutions protecting free speech and freedom of the press proved ineffective in limiting this new federal power. Although the courts did not decide on the constitutionality of these laws at the time, most scholars believe the Sedition Act, in particular, would be unconstitutional if it had remained in effect. Three of the four laws were repealed in the Jefferson administration, but one—the Alien Enemies Act—remains on the books today. Two centuries later, the issue of free speech and freedom of the press during times of international conflict remains a subject of public debate.

Should the government be able to restrict or censor unpatriotic, disloyal, or critical speech in times of international conflict? What about from government whistle-blowers or employees who leak sensitive information? How much freedom should journalists have to report on stories from the perspective of enemies or to repeat propaganda from opposing forces?

EXTENDING THE BILL OF RIGHTS TO THE STATES

In the decades following the Constitution’s ratification, the Supreme Court declined to expand the Bill of Rights to curb the power of the states, most notably in the 1833 case of Barron v. Baltimore.[7] In this case, which dealt with property rights under the Fifth Amendment, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that the Bill of Rights applied only to actions by the federal government, not state or local governments. Explaining the court’s ruling, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that it was incorrect to argue that “the Constitution was intended to secure the people of the several states against the undue exercise of power by their respective state governments; as well as against that which might be attempted by their [Federal] government.”

The festering issue of the rights of enslaved persons and the convulsions of the Civil War and its aftermath forced a reexamination of the prevailing thinking about the application of the Bill of Rights to the states.  Soon after slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, state governments—particularly those in the former Confederacy—began to pass “Black codes” that restricted the rights of formerly enslaved people, including the right to hold office, own land, or vote, relegating them to second-class citizenship. Angered by these actions, members of the Radical Republican faction in Congress demanded that the Black codes be overturned. In the short term, they advocated suspending civilian government in most of the southern states and replacing politicians who had enacted these discriminatory laws. Their long-term solution was to propose and enforce two amendments to the Constitution to guarantee the rights of freed men and women. These became the Fourteenth Amendment, which dealt with civil liberties and rights in general, and the Fifteenth Amendment, which protected the right to vote in particular, though still not for women or Native Americans.

Photo A is of John Bingham. Photo B is of Abraham Lincoln.
Figure 4. Representative John Bingham (R-OH) (a) is considered the author of the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted on July 9, 1868. Influenced by his mentor, Salmon P. Chase, Bingham was a strong supporter of the antislavery cause. After Chase lost the Republican presidential nomination to Abraham Lincoln (b), Bingham became one of the president’s most ardent supporters.

With the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, the scope and limits of civil liberties became clearer. First, the amendment says, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States,” which is a provision that echoes the privileges and immunities clause in Article IV, Section 2, of the original Constitution ensuring that states treat citizens of other states the same as their own citizens. (To use an example from today, the punishment for speeding by an out-of-state driver cannot be more severe than the punishment for an in-state driver.) Legal scholars and the courts have extensively debated the meaning of this privileges and immunities clause over the years, with some arguing that it was supposed to extend the entire Bill of Rights (or at least the first eight amendments) to the states, and others arguing that only some rights are extended. In 1999, Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for a majority of the Supreme Court, argued in Saenz v. Roe that the clause protects the right to travel from one state to another.[8] More recently, Justice Clarence Thomas argued in the 2010 McDonald v. Chicago ruling that the individual right to bear arms applied to the states because of this clause.[9]

The second provision of the Fourteenth Amendment pertaining to the application of the Bill of Rights to the states is the due process clause, which says, “Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Like the Fifth Amendment, this clause refers to “due process,” a term that is interpreted to require both access to procedural justice (such as the right to a trial) as well as the more substantive implication that people be treated fairly and impartially by government officials. Although the text of the provision does not mention rights specifically, the courts have held in a series of cases that due process also implies that there are certain fundamental liberties that cannot be denied by the states. For example, in Sherbert v. Verner (1963), the Supreme Court ruled that states could not deny unemployment benefits to an individual who turned down a job because it required working on the Sabbath.[10]

Beginning in 1897, the Supreme Court has found that various provisions of the Bill of Rights protecting these fundamental liberties must be upheld by the states, even if their state constitutions and laws (and the Tenth Amendment itself) do not protect them as fully as the Bill of Rights does—or at all. This means there has been a process of selective incorporation of the Bill of Rights into the practices of the states: the Constitution effectively inserts parts of the Bill of Rights into state laws and constitutions, even though it doesn’t do so explicitly. When cases arise to clarify particular issues and procedures, the Supreme Court decides whether state laws violate the Bill of Rights and are therefore unconstitutional.

For example, under the Fifth Amendment a person can be tried in federal court for a felony—a serious crime—only after a grand jury issues an indictment indicating that it is reasonable to try them.  (A grand jury is a group of citizens charged with deciding whether there is enough evidence of a crime to prosecute someone.) The Supreme Court has ruled that states don’t have to use grand juries as long as they ensure people accused of crimes are indicted using an equally fair process.

Selective incorporation is an ongoing process. When the Supreme Court initially decided in 2008 that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms, it did not decide then that it was a fundamental liberty the states must uphold as well. It was only in the McDonald v. Chicago case two years later that the Supreme Court incorporated the Second Amendment into state law. Another area in which the Supreme Court gradually moved to incorporate the Bill of Rights regards censorship and the Fourteenth Amendment. In Near v. Minnesota (1931), the Court disagreed with state courts regarding censorship and ruled it unconstitutional except in rare cases.[11]

CHAPTER REVIEW

See the Chapter 4.1 Review for a summary of this section, the key vocabulary, and some review questions to check your knowledge.


  1. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, 391 U.S. 430 (1968); Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737 (1984).
  2. "Family Separation under the Trump Administration - a Timeline," Southern Poverty Law Center, 17 June 2020, https://www.splcenter.org/news/2020/06/17/family-separation-under-trump-administration- timeline.
  3. Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866).
  4. Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942); See William H. Rehnquist. 1998. All the Laws but One: Civil Liberties in Wartime. New York: William Morrow.
  5. American History from Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond, "Madison Speech Proposing the Bill of Rights June 8 1789," http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1786-1800/madison-speech-proposing-the-bill-of-rights-june-8-1789.php (March 4, 2016).
  6. Constitution Society, "To the Citizens of the State of New-York," http://www.constitution.org/afp/brutus02.htm (March 4, 2016).
  7. Barron v. Baltimore, 32 U.S. 243 (1833).
  8. Saenz v. Roe, 526 U.S. 489 (1999).
  9. McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010).
  10. Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963).
  11. Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931).
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