In this lesson, we will learn about the origin of the court's role with civil liberties in the United States. We will take a closer look at what the court's positions entail and the effects on society today.
Civil liberties are defined as rights guaranteed to the people by the United States Constitution and by court-made law or legislation. These liberties allow us to speak out freely against our government, express our opinions, organize protests and worship in whatever way we choose. It was important to the early settlers that we have these liberties in order to be protected from unnecessary government intrusion.
Role of the Courts
The framers of the United States Constitution were concerned about the government having too much power. Therefore, they divided the government into three separate branches: the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. Article III of the United States Constitution gave judicial power to the U.S. Supreme Court and other lower state and federal courts.
Federal courts in the United States are charged with hearing and deciding all cases dealing with a constitutional or federal statute issue. State courts in the United States are charged with hearing and deciding all cases dealing with state statute issues. With regards to the judiciary, it was important to the framers that the courts have freedom from influence by other branches and politics. Therefore, it is difficult to remove a judge from her job, and their salaries are set by statute. One of the most important jobs that the courts are charged with is the responsibility to review legislation to ensure that our individual civil liberties are protected.
Let's look at a few examples of what the courts have decided with regards to our civil liberties.
Modern Day Review
The role of the courts in evaluating civil liberties is a contentious one. Amazingly, our civil liberties continue to be tested, interpreted and extended to this day. For example, in 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled that several amendments to the Bill of Rights imply a right to privacy. This landmark ruling paved the way for future civil liberty cases, such as those on abortion and same-sex marriage.
One of the biggest civil liberty cases that was seen in 2013 was a question of the right to privacy. The issue that the courts have undertaken is one that asks whether a same-sex marriage is a protected civil liberty the same as an opposite sex marriage. For example, if a female marries another female, do they enjoy the same privacy protections as a female who married a male?
Another civil liberty that the Supreme Court has undertaken protection of is the freedom of speech. The Supreme Court has heard numerous cases of individuals that are questioning whether their civil liberty of free speech was violated by the government, and the court has offered much guidance on the subject. The court has found that there are many types of speech that are protected and, in the course of determining this, have read briefs and heard testimony on point. The court has also decided types of speech that are not protected as a civil liberty, such as child pornography, obscenity or fighting words.
Most of the court's rulings have made sense. For example, should an individual be able to stand up in a packed movie theater and yell 'fire' if in fact there's no fire? What kind of risk does that create to the stampede of individuals trying to scramble out of a theater? What kind of expense to the theater does it create in having to call police and fire in for a false claim? It is for these reasons that the court has determined that the state has a compelling interest in preventing occurrences that outweigh a person's right to 'speak.'
The last big civil liberty the court has reviewed, in addition to many others not mentioned here, is the right to keep and bear arms. After the framers of the Constitution included this civil liberty within the Second Amendment, it was not interpreted by the courts for over a century. Most recently, it was again reviewed in the matter of District of Colombia v. Heller. In this case, the right of the individual to keep and bear arms was solidified. It is a significant testimony to the court that for centuries it has reviewed, and protected, this civil liberty for Americans.
Civil liberties are defined as rights guaranteed to the people by the United States Constitution and by court-made law or legislation. It was important to the early settlers that we have courts to review and protect these liberties in order to prevent unnecessary government intrusion. The courts have continued to analyze and interpret our civil liberty rights in modern day society.
Following this video lesson, you will be able to:
- Define civil liberties and explain how the framers of the United States Constitution sought to protect these liberties through the courts
- Describe the impact and importance of Griswold v. Connecticut and District of Colombia v. Heller
- Provide examples of issues that modern-day courts review in terms of civil liberties