Civil Liberties

Civil Liberties in the United States

Protections from arbitrary actions by government. Civil liberties are those rights enumerated in constitutions or bills of rights. The American Bill of Rights, for example, creates an insulating barrier between the individual and government, and it sets certain behaviors by government out of bounds. The government cannot, for example, censor political expression because the First Amendment protects freedom of speech. This kind of restriction is substantive—it specifies what government can and cannot do. Other civil liberties restraints on government focus on process or procedure. Government has the power to prosecute someone for alleged criminal conduct, but it may not deny the accused the procedural protection of having his or her guilt adjudicated by an impartial jury in a public trial. It is the substantive and procedural restrictions on government taken together that define civil liberties. Civil rights are different from civil liberties in that they refer to affirmative acts of government designed to protect a person from other individuals or the government itself.

See Also

Bill of Rights (Judicial Effects and Policies) Civil Rights (Judicial Effects and Policies) Incorporation (Judicial Effects and Policies).

Analysis and Relevance

Civil liberties protect citizens from actions of the government. Civil liberties may be spelled out in a single constitution, but that is not a necessary pre-condition. The British experience is illustrative of a political system where safeguards are not so set forth, but statutory and common law limits are effective nonetheless. The U.S. Bill of Rights was formally added to the Constitution in the first ten amendments. The American tradition of protecting civil liberties is drawn from a variety of sources, principally British. Documents like the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Rights (1628), and the Bill of Rights (1689) firmly established such concepts as limiting the power of governmental institutions and equality. Similarly, the works of such political thinkers as John Locke were well known to those who framed the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights. Civil liberties provisions in the Bill of Rights direct government not to interfere in certain areas of individual activity, but such interference is generally not categorically or absolutely prohibited. Rather, government may only interfere where the public interest in doing so is compelling. Even then, the government may only proceed in limited ways. The task of the courts is to weigh the often competing public welfare and individual liberty interests. A variety of tests or devices have been created to facilitate in making these judgments. Through a process known as selective incorporation, virtually all of the provisions of the federal Bill of Rights have come to apply also to the state level of government.

Notes and References

  1. Definition of Civil Liberties from the American Law Dictionary, 1991, California

Civil Liberties in the United States

Civil Liberties and the Antislavery Controversy

United States Constitution

According to theEncyclopedia of the American Constitution, about its article titled “Civil Liberties and the Antislavery Controversy”: Two civil liberties issues linked the freedom of communication enjoyed by whites with the cause of the slave: the mails controversy of 1835_1837 and the gag controversy of 1836_1844.By 1835, southern political leaders, anxiety-ridden by threats to the
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Some Constitutional Law Popular Entries

Civil Liberties

United States Constitution

According to theEncyclopedia of the American Constitution, about its article titled CIVIL LIBERTIESwilliam blackstone described civil liberty as “the great end of all human society and government that state in which each individual has the power to pursue his own happiness according to his own views of his interest, and the dictates of his conscience, unrestrained, except by
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Civil Liberties

United States Constitution

According to theEncyclopedia of the American Constitution, about its article titled CIVIL LIBERTIES The significant increase in the constitutional protection of civil rights and civil liberties that has occurred since the late 1950s has brought dramatically renewed focus to the question of the appropriate scope of judicial power. Some argue that the federal judiciary,
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Patriot Act The Debate Over the Patriot Act Impact on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

Introduction to Civil Liberties

The principal underlying theme of the debate over the Patriot Act involves whether its provisions are really going to help fight terrorism. Many critics of the Patriot Act believe law enforcement officials are simply using the September 11 attacks as a pretext to obtain the kinds of expanded powers they have sought for years. These critics note that federal prosecutors and agencies such as the FBI had sought many of the Patriot Act’s features for years. Passage of the bill was simply giving them what had long been on their “wish list.” Supporters of the Patriot Act counter that the September 11 attacks highlighted the deficiencies of existing laws, deficiencies that were overcome by passage of the Patriot Act.

The most vocal critics of the Patriot Act came from two camps. One was the civil liberties community, composed of groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is devoted to monitoring whether the government is overreaching or infringing on basic civil rights and civil liberties. A bit more surprisingly, some of the opposition to the Patriot Act came from some conservative Republicans, who were also wary of too much government power. Conservatives may sometimes be divided into two groups, those who generally favor the government’s ability to crack down on crime, called authoritarian conservatives, and a smaller branch composed of people who favor limited government, called libertarians.

When President Bush and his White House aides promoted support for the Patriot Act, they found unexpected opposition from some fellow Republicans such as Representative F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who was the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Sensenbrenner complained that the bill that was to become the Patriot Act contained too many exceptions to the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches of ordinary citizens. In particular, critics like Sensenbrenner and the ACLU pointed out that the Patriot Act expanded the government’s ability to investigate citizens by eliminating in many cases the precaution of having a judge review the action beforehand.

The ACLU emphasized that “common law,” which is the set of centuries-old principles underlying Western democracy, recognized that government may not invade a person’s property without telling the person. That is known as the “knock-and-search” principle. But under section 213 the Patriot Act authorized what have been called “sneak-and-peek” warrants in which a judge may allow investigators to enter a house or apartment, search it, take photos, and copy or download computer documents, among other actions, all without telling the occupant beforehand. Such sneak-and-peak warrants had been authorized under FISA but only in cases involving a foreign power or its agents. The government must eventually notify the occupant that a search was conducted, although the government can indefinitely request a delay in notification for good cause.

The ACLU maintains that the Patriot Act threatens the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, and 14th amendments to the Constitution. It claims that the act allows the FBI to investigate American citizens for criminal activity without probable cause and by simply saying that it is for “intelligence purposes.”

Other organizations, such as the American Library Association (ALA) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center, have stated their opposition to provisions of the Patriot Act. And more than 240 communities, including such major cities as Los Angeles and New York, have also passed resolutions opposing portions of the Patriot Act.” (1)

Civil Liberties Background


Notes and References

Guide to Civil Liberties

Civil Liberties: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Civil Liberties. This part provides references, in relation to Civil Liberties, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Civil Liberties by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Civil Liberties and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Civil Liberties or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Civil Liberties and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Civil Liberties. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Civil Liberties should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Civil Liberties when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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