The Distinction between Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

Civil liberties and civil rights are commonly used interchangeably, but they represent two fundamentally different principles. Civil liberties, based on the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution) and the “Due Process” Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, are political freedoms that protect individuals from government tyranny. Individual rights to speech, to privacy, and to bearing arms are examples of the civil liberties that we are guaranteed as U.S. citizens. Civil rights, on the other hand, protect individuals from discrimination by the government and other individuals and originate from the “Equal Protection” Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Civil rights guarantee the equality of all citizens; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are prime examples of laws instituted to ensure equal protection of all citizens under the law. 

Here are a few examples of the distinction between civil liberties and civil rights using current events:

  1. Ferguson: The U.S. Department of Justice released a report on the Ferguson police department in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting in 2014. Included in the report are examples of police officers demanding to see pedestrians’ identification without probable cause (Amendment IV). This is a civil liberties issue as police are violating individuals’ protected political freedom. The fact that the Ferguson police force has predominately targeted African Americans is a civil rights issue; the government (the police force and court system) is discriminating against a certain group and, therefore, not ensuring equality of citizenship.

    "Free Speech Mural, Berkeley" by George Oates (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    “Free Speech Mural, Berkeley” by George Oates (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

  2. Free speech on college campus: Freedoms of expression and assembly are a few of the civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution in the First Amendment. College campuses are environments in which these liberties have historically and effectively been expressed. When universities only permit certain groups or a certain side of an argument to speak and assemble while preventing other groups or the other side of an argument from doing so, it becomes a civil rights issue. I highly recommend the podcast titled, “Are Liberals Stifling Academic Diversity”, which explores the issue (and opinions) of free speech on campus in more detail.

Clear distinctions between civil liberties and civil rights remain. How is this distinction important in your daily life?

 Further Reading

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