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What are Civil Liberties? - Definition, Examples & Cases

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  • 1:41 Examples
  • 2:40 Right to Free Speech
  • 3:45 Right to Avoid…
  • 4:20 When Is School Prayer…
  • 5:01 Right to an Attorney
  • 5:48 Student Rights to Free Speech
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
What are civil liberties? How are they different from civil rights? How do we know exactly what (and when) they are? The issue of civil liberties began with the Constitution and continues with the U.S. Supreme Court.

Defining Civil Liberties

You have the right to free speech. But, does this mean you have the right to yell at your neighbor's house through a bullhorn at three in the morning? You have the right to legal counsel. But, what if you can't afford a lawyer? Should the state pay for you? You have all these rights. But, if you're arrested, does someone have to remind you?

The issue of civil liberties is a vital one to all Americans, if only because the Constitution is often vague on what those rights actually mean. Even more confusing, there's a significant difference between civil rights and civil liberties, a distinction that is small but crucial to understanding why civil liberties are important and protected at all. Fortunately, a process exists which helps to clarify the differences and distinctions for all Americans, a process which sometimes stops at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Constitution is a list of 'do's': a document explaining what the federal government is allowed to do and areas in which it is allowed to be present. The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to that Constitution (as well as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments passed after the Civil War and usually considered part of the American guarantee of rights) are a list of 'do-nots,' which apply specifically to the federal government. These relate to rights we all hold, which can't be violated or suppressed.

So there's a distinction between civil rights, which means 'the basic right to be free from unequal treatment, based on certain characteristics which we deem important, like race, gender, and disability,' and civil liberties, which are 'basic freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights or interpreted through the years by courts and lawmakers.' For most of us, then, when we talk about our 'rights,' we're really talking about our 'liberties.'

Examples of Civil Liberties

The rights we are guaranteed in the Constitution and in federal law are sometimes very well-known, and sometimes a little more obscure. Some of them are explicitly guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, such as the right to free speech, while others have been inferred from those rights and made real by court decisions or acts of law, such as the right to privacy. The essential civil liberties guaranteed in the United States are, in no particular order:

  • Right to privacy
  • Right to a jury trial
  • Right to freedom of religion
  • Right to travel freely
  • Right to freedom of speech
  • Right to be free from self-incrimination
  • Right to bear arms
  • Right to marry
  • Right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures of your property
  • Right to freedom of the press
  • Right to be free from cruel and unusual punishments
  • Right to legal counsel
  • Right to assemble peacefully
  • Right to vote

As mentioned earlier, many of these liberties are the product not of the Bill of Right's original text, but instead were based on court cases.

The Right to Free Speech

Schenck v. United States

In 1919, Charles Schenck was arrested for distributing a pamphlet which criticized the U.S. military draft and offered advice on how to evade it. He was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act, which made illegal any attempt 'to cause insubordination' in U.S. military forces. Schenck's defense was that the act violated the First Amendment and his right to free speech.

The Supreme Court disagreed, and in their ruling helped to refine what the idea of free speech really meant. The Court came up with an elegant metaphor to explain their thinking, the now famous 'crowded theatre' example: a man shouts 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre, causing a panic and a stampede in which people may be injured.

While such an act may be protected in a private dwelling, the First Amendment didn't extend to an act that may result in someone else's injury. The phrase 'clear and present danger' became the principle against which speech could be judged. Since what Schenck advocated could present such a danger to U.S. interests, it could be limited or even prohibited.

The Right to Avoid Convicting Yourself

Miranda v. Arizona

Ernesto Miranda was arrested on suspicion of rape in 1963. During interrogation, Miranda confessed to the crime without being told that he had a right to representation by a lawyer and to remain silent. On appeal, Miranda claimed that he should have been made aware of these rights. The government objected, claiming that it had no obligation to explicitly inform him of his rights. The Supreme Court, however, disagreed, and a new verb was born: to be 'mirandized' means to have your rights read to you, and is now required after every arrest.

When is School Prayer Constitutional?

Engel v. Vitale

In 1962, families in New York filed a lawsuit over what they saw as a violation of their First Amendment rights to be free of an established religion. Every day in public schools in New Hyde Park, New York a prayer was read over the intercom; the families (most of whom were Jewish) saw this as a state endorsement of an organized religion.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the families, stating that the school, as an organ of the government, had to remain nonsectarian, and that sponsored school prayer was unconstitutional. If a student wants to pray to him or herself, that's just fine. Sponsored prayers are school-wide and done with the administration's consent.

The Right to an Attorney

Gideon v. Wainwright, 1963

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