Individual Rights: Balance, Restrictions & the Common Good

Instructor: Angelica Goldman

Angelica has taught college and high school history and social sciences, has a master's degree in history, and is a licensed FL teacher.

This lesson will discuss the balance of individual rights versus the rights of others and the common good. It will cover the nature of individual rights in America, and the restrictions placed on those rights in the goal of ensuring fairness to others who also wish to exercise their own rights.

Do you have the right to do anything you want? In the United States, individual rights are considered sacrosanct, or extremely important and respected. But does this mean anyone can do anything, as long as that right is protected? Let's explore the delicate dance of civil liberties in America.

Individual Rights

Individual rights are those civil liberties or freedoms that people are entitled to in America. These rights typically include not only the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as set forth in the 'Declaration of Independence'. They also refer to the freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly, and all the others explicitly mentioned in the US Constitution's Bill of Rights. Typically, we consider individual rights to be the type of rights that allow a person to think, act, work, and behave generally as they wish to do so in society.

Signing of the Constitution

Painting of the Signing of the US Constitution

In America, these individual rights or civil liberties are guaranteed in our Constitution and other founding documents. The Founding Fathers of America, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, deliberately included these rights in the Bill of Rights so that it would be very difficult for the government to abridge them. For the most part, this remains true. The American government and court system are generally very reluctant to tamper with the individual liberties to which every American is entitled.

In a perfect world, the government would never need to get involved with these rights. Every individual would respect the rights of every other individual and everyone would be happy. Unfortunately, real life does not work that way. Citizens can and will trample on the rights of other citizens in a democracy in the pursuit of their own happiness. Therefore, with great freedom also comes great responsibility.

The Rights of Others

Because each individual has individual rights in American society, there sometimes becomes a conflict between the rights of different individuals. In an ideal world, good citizens respect and tread carefully around the rights of others. When they don't do this, the government has a duty to enact laws that ensure that each individual has reasonably equivalent ability to exercise their individual rights. This sounds very complicated, but it is actually very simple in practice. It means that your right to do something doesn't get to trample on my rights in the process.

The classic example of abridging or restricting an individual right to ensure that another person's individual rights are still respected centers around the First Amendment. The First Amendment guarantees individuals' rights to freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and the right to petition. It specifically states that Congress cannot make any law 'abridging the freedom of speech'.

First Amendment

The handwritten text of the First Amendment

On the surface, freedom of speech sounds right, exactly like the kind of individual right we want to protect. Each individual should be able to say what they like. Common sense, right? But wait, what if Joe Schmo decides to go around town saying that John Doe is a criminal when John Doe is really a normal, regular, upstanding citizen? Living in town will probably start to get really uncomfortable if everyone else starts to believe Joe Schmo. This means that John's right to life will have been infringed on, in the name of Joe's right to free speech.

So what's the government to do? In this case, in order to protect John's individual liberty of life, that is his ability to live in peace without being called a criminal (and then treated as such by the unsuspecting townspeople), the government allows Joe to be prosecuted for defamation or the act of damaging someone's good reputation through falsehood or lies.

This classic example demonstrates how and why an individual right might be restricted in order for everyone to be able to fairly enjoy their own individual rights. Thus, while individual rights are very important, they are relative, instead of totally absolute.

The Common Good

Another issue at stake in the careful balance of individual freedoms is the common good, or what benefits everyone. In some ways, laws created by the government create careful boundaries so that one person's rights don't bump into another, as in the earlier example about defamation. This is one way of maintaining fairness and equality under the law, which is a part of the common good.

We the People

The famous introductory phrase to the American Constitution

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