Civil Rights vs. Civil Liberties
You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to a fair court trial. You also have the right to vote and the right to privacy. Americans are very familiar with these rights, but are they considered civil rights or civil liberties? "Civil rights" and "civil liberties" are terms that are often used synonymously, interchangeably, but the terms are actually very distinct. This article explores the differences between civil rights and civil liberties, with specific laws corresponding to each term.
Civil rights concern the basic right to be free from unequal treatment based on certain protected characteristics (race, gender, disability, etc.) in settings such as employment, education, housing, and access to public facilities. A civil rights violation occurs in designated situations where an individual is discriminated against on the basis of a protected characteristic. Most civil rights laws are established through the federal government via federal legislation or case law.
Civil liberties concern basic rights and freedoms that are guaranteed -- either explicitly identified in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, or interpreted or inferred through the years by legislatures or the courts.
Civil liberties include:
- The right to free speech
- The right to privacy
- The right to remain silent in a police interrogation
- The right to be free from unreasonable searches of your home
- The right to a fair court trial
- The right to marry
- The right to vote
Civil Rights v. Civil Liberties
The law differentiates between civil rights, which means the basic right of freedom from discrimination based on certain personal characteristics such as gender, race, or disability, and civil liberties which are basic freedoms. Civil liberties concern the actual basic freedoms; civil rights concern the treatment of an individual regarding certain rights. Unlike civil liberties, where the government grants broad-based rights to individuals, civil rights are not only granted by the government but also contain a protective aspect of those rights based on certain characteristics.
One way to consider the difference between civil rights and civil liberties is to look at 1) what right is affected, and 2) whose right is affected.
For example, as an employee, you do not have the legal right to a promotion, mainly because getting a promotion is not a guaranteed "civil liberty." However, as a female employee you do have the legal right to be free from discrimination in being considered for that promotion -- you cannot legally be denied the promotion based on your gender (or race, or disability, etc.). By choosing not to promote a female worker solely because of the employee's gender, the employer has committed a civil rights violation and has engaged in unlawful employment discrimination based on sex or gender.
Here's another example: the right to marry is a civil liberty, while gay marriage is a civil rights matter. If a couple (either same-sex or opposite-sex) is denied a marriage license because the court clerk has decided not to issue them at all, then their civil liberties have been violated. But if the clerk denied marriage licenses only to LGBT couples, it is a civil rights violation.
Contact a Civil Rights Attorney for Help with Your Legal Claim
Knowing the difference between civil rights and civil liberties can help to determine whether you have a civil rights claim. If you believe your civil rights have been violated, consider speaking with a civil rights attorney near you to better understand your legal options.
Students reflect on their own ideas of liberty and learn how to define and identify civil liberties. They watch a video segment about the impact of World War II and discuss how the war changed American ideas about democracy and liberty.
This is the first of two lessons that comprise a unit on balancing the rights of individuals with the goals of society. For the second lesson, see Minersville School District v.Gobitis Lesson Plan. For extension activities to use with this unit, visit the Supreme Court website.
- Define the terms "civil rights" and "civil liberties"
- Identify basic civil liberties
Approx. (1) 50 minute period
Civil Liberties and Civil Rights handout
Viewer’s Guide for A Nation of Liberties: Democracy and World War II
Before The Lesson
If you prefer to predetermine student groups and partner sets for your class, do so.
Part I: Introduction
1. Write the following prompt on the board:
...with liberty and justice for all
As class begins, ask students to spend five minutes writing a short response essay about what this phrase means to them. Write the ending time on the board.
2. At the end of five minutes, ask students to switch papers with a neighbor to discuss the short essays. You can help guide students by suggesting the following items for discussion:
- As you read your neighbor's paper, ask your neighbor any questions you have about it, and tell your neighbor what new ideas his or her paper gave you.
Part II: Identifying Liberties
1. In a large class discussion, ask students the following questions and record their answers on the board.
- Where do you think these liberties and freedoms come from?
Answer: Some people believe that we are born with certain undeniable political, social, and economic freedoms. These are often known as our human rights.
Answer: Some people believe that our rights and freedoms are derived from our democratic form of government -- a government that sets out our rights in the Constitution and limits the power of government to trample our rights.
- How do you define liberty or civil liberty?
Answer: Answers will vary, but will likely center on the ideas of freedoms or rights. If students do not mention the ideas below, raise them:
- Liberty is the right and power to act, believe, or express oneself in a manner of one's own choosing.
- Having liberty means being free from restrictions or control, particularly from excessive or unfair government control.
- Civil liberties are the rights that are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, or the laws made by elected officials and decisions made by courts.
- Can you list specific civil liberties people have in the United States?
Answers will vary, but may include:
-Freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, etc.
-Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, unreasonable searches and seizures, self-incrimination, discrimination, etc.
- Rights to speedy trial, attorney, due process, privacy, marry, vote, etc.
2. Tell students that many people use the terms "civil liberties" and "civil rights" interchangeably. Distribute and project the Civil Liberties and Civil Rights handout. After reviewing the handout, check students’ understanding of the concept of the "constitutional floor" for rights and liberties.
3. Explain to students that one of the biggest and enduring challenges of the Supreme Court is to decide how to handle situations when one individual's exercise of liberty conflicts with the goals or rights of others in society. The period between the 1930s and the 1970s was a time of great change for how the Court and American public viewed the correct balance between protecting individual liberties and "letting democracy run its course" by letting elected officials pass and enforce laws that reflect majority will.
Part III: World War II and the Spread of Democracy
1. Tell students they will be seeing a short video segment about the impact of World War II on American ideas. Distribute the Viewer’s Guide for A Nation of Liberties: Democracy and World War II. Ask students to answer questions A and B on the handout before they view the segment.
NOTE: You may want to allow students to work with a partner on these questions if you are not confident they can answer them independently.
2. After a few minutes, discuss the answers to questions A and B.
A) What had the Nazis, Japanese, and other Axis nations done that justified fighting a world war?
Answers will vary. If students do not mention it, be sure to explain that the Axis powers had invaded other countries to take over their land in an attempt to rule the globe, and they had persecuted and committed genocide against groups of people they deemed unfit or less human. They had become fascist and totalitarian.
B) What ideas or principles were Americans and the other Allies fighting for?
Answers will vary. Some students will likely say that the Allies were fighting to stop the actions of Nazi Germany and Japan. If students do not mention it, be sure to add that the Allies fought to expand democracy throughout the world -- that they believed nations and societies should not be subject to domination by totalitarian dictators, that people had the right to self-determination, and that minorities should not be persecuted.
NOTE: If necessary, define the terms students do not know.
3. Ask students to preview questions C through E before you start the first film segment. Play theWhy We Fight QuickTime Video. After students watch the video, give them five minutes to answer the questions on their own or with a partner.
4. Discuss their answers.
C) How did World War II change America?
Answers will vary. Students do not have to quote the narrator or historians shown in the film, but they should paraphrase their ideas:
"It cast Americans as defenders of liberty worldwide." It showed that America was the most powerful country in the world because of its freedoms and rights. "It changed American ideas on individual liberty and government power."
D) According to Joan Biskupic, what major tensions existed in this time and in the time period that followed the war?
There were "tensions between national security, national identity, free speech, and individual rights."
E) What do you think Ms. Biskupic meant when she said referred to the Supreme Court and said, "They don't move in a straight line. They move in fits and starts. They have to backtrack".
The Supreme Court did not move consistently in the direction of favoring individual liberties on every case. The Court's road to favoring individual liberty was often bumpy.
1. Ask students to take out a sheet of paper and pencil. Give them three to five minutes to make a sketch or to write ideas about symbols of liberty. Their sketches or ideas should reflect the main points of today's lesson.
2. After about five minutes, ask two or three student volunteers to show their sketches or to explain their ideas. Students' sketches or ideas will vary, but will likely include: the Liberty Bell, the flag, the Statue of Liberty, various monuments and memorials, etc.