Civil Liberties

Civil liberties are freedoms due every individual, just based on the fact that they are human beings. The Declaration of Independence asserts the creed of the American people, as it declares that all men are endowed with certain inalienable rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Civil liberties are not gifted by governmental action, as they are rights of birth. The government cannot take away or change these rights by making or doing away with legislation. Civil liberties are different from civil rights, though the difference is sometimes difficult to grasp. To explore this concept, consider the following civil liberties definition.

Definition of Civil Liberties


  1. Personal freedoms that cannot be taken away or reduced by the government without due process.
  2. The right to do or say things that are not illegal without being obstructed by the government.


Early 17th Century

What are Civil Liberties

Many people around the globe hold the belief that every person bears certain rights and freedoms, as granted by God, or simply by virtue of being human. Civil liberties means having freedom from arbitrary interference in one’s pursuits, such as freedom of expression, freedom to practice religion, or freedom to earn a living. In the U.S., these personal freedoms cannot be taken away or diminished by the government without due process of law.

On this, the Declaration of Independence states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Examples of civil liberties include:

  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of assembly
  • Freedom of press
  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom of conscience
  • Right to liberty and security
  • Freedom from torture
  • Freedom from forced disappearance
  • Right to privacy
  • Right to equal treatment under the law
  • Right to due process
  • Right to a fair trial
  • Right to life
  • Right to marry
  • Right to vote

Certainly this list is not exhaustive, as other liberties present themselves, such as having a right to defend oneself, or to own property.

Civil Liberties in the United States

Civil liberties in the United States are protected by the U.S. Constitution, and by the Bill of Rights, which are stated as amendments to the Constitution. Protected civil liberties include the right to due process, equal protection, and a prohibition against any state law that supersedes federal law. The difference between civil rights and civil liberties becomes important to understand, as navigating the governmental and legal system in regards to these issues can be confusing.

As an example of civil liberties vs. civil rights, in early America, many people were denied the right to vote, even though they were considered to enjoy the fundamental freedoms – the civil liberties – which come from the right to life, liberty, and a pursuit of happiness. In this case, those people were denied their civil right to vote, and to take meaningful part in their government. Today, all American citizens, regardless of race, creed, religion, or any other characteristic, have a right to vote in elections.

Governmental leaders today have given great consideration to civil liberties denied to certain groups of people throughout U.S. history. For example, Native American people are governed by tribal governments, which remain sovereign, answering to federal, not state laws. In 1968, Congress passed the Indian Civil Rights Act, which gave many, though not all, rights afforded by the Bill of Rights, to the Native American people.

President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which issued a public Congressional apology to those Japanese Americans whose liberty and property were taken, when they were interred in camps during World War II. The Act went so far as to create a Civil Liberties Public Education fund, requiring a board to track down any individuals affected by the Act, and to pay them each $20,000 from the fund.

American Civil Liberties Union

In early 20th century America, the people became concerned that Communism would take root in the U.S. As concerns grew into fears, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer began a roundup of non-citizens and so-called radicals. During this action, known as the “Palmer Raids,” thousands of people were taken into custody without warrants, and with no consideration for their Constitutional rights against unlawful search and seizure These people were treated cruelly, and held in appalling conditions. Only a handful of citizens took action on their alarm over the dreadful civil liberties and civil rights violations. This was the birth of the American Civil Liberties Union, also known as the “ACLU.”

For nearly a century, the American Civil Liberties Union has worked toward its stated purpose of defending and preserving the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States. Over the years, the ACLU has taken on such issues as African American rights, Native American rights, police brutality, censorship in the arts, free speech, and the right to peaceably assemble. Modern times see the ACLU stepping into issues of racial discrimination, police misconduct, and the rights of certain “victim groups,” including the homeless, the poor, women, and issues of sexual orientation.

Civil Liberties Examples in Modern Cases

Courts across the nation are filled with civil lawsuits and challenges regarding civil liberties and civil rights.

Rights of the Homeless to Life, Liberty, Property, and Due Process

Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles has long been a nucleus for homeless shelters and social services for the extremely poor, the majority of whom are Black. When the LAPD launched a “Safer Cities Initiative” in 2006, in an effort to clean up the downtown area and encourage new growth, thousands of poor and homeless people were harassed, arrested, and displaced.

The ACLU represented six of those homeless people in a lawsuit, charging the City with violation of the 8th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as Article I of the California Constitution, all of which deal with the civil liberties of equal protection under the law, due process, and a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The ACLU won the case, when the judge ruled that “the LAPD cannot arrest people for sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks in Skid Row.” The City did enter into a compromise with them, however, in which the homeless people would be allowed to sleep on the sidewalks of the area only between the hours of 9:00 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. Unfortunately, the City Council promptly voted against the compromise, sending police out to make wide scale arrests.

Creation, Evolution, and Opinion

In 2004, the school district in Dover, Pennsylvania found itself in the middle of a community debate over creationism, Darwinism, and the separation of church and state. As the science department taught Darwin’s theory of evolution, a student painted a mural showing his view of man’s evolution from ape to human form. A rift suddenly formed in the student body, which included their parents, and soon spread to the community.

Parents who didn’t believe in Darwinism took exception to the fact that it was taught to the exclusion of all else, and demanded that the idea of “intelligent design” be taught alongside evolution. Intelligent design is a term given to the idea that the universe, and therefore mankind, were created by a superior being, or God. Pro-evolution parents and community members quickly jumped on the “separation of church and state” bandwagon, filing a lawsuit against the school district, claiming the school was promoting religion in the classroom, in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In this example of civil liberties dispute, the trial was lengthy. Judge John E. Jones III heard evidence and testimony from both sides of the issue. Finally, the judge ruled in favor of the parents, holding that “intelligent design” is not science, and could not therefore be taught in the classroom. The school was permanently banned from teaching the idea of intelligent design in science classes.

Man’s Right to be Free from Torture

In the years following the 9/11 attacks on American soil, the military took a large number of people into custody based on a suspicion that they were involved in terrorist activities. These people were held in off-shore prison facilities, such as a holding facility in Afghanistan, and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Classified as “enemy combatants,” these prisoners, referred as “detainees,” were not given the basic civil liberties of due process, legal representation, or even an intent to go to trial. In addition, many of the prisoners complained of being tortured during their detainment.

In 2005, the ACLU agreed to represent three detainees, Gul Rahman, Suleiman Abdullah Salim, and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, in a lawsuit against two psychologists contracted by the CIA to design and implement psychological torture methods. The defendants, James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, were accused of supervising an experimental torture program in which detainees were subjected to such horrifying treatment as starvation, sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, forced immersion in ice water, short chaining, and water boarding.

The psychologists petitioned the court for a dismissal of the case. The motion was denied, as the court ruled the case could go forward, and gave the parties only 30 days to come up with a plan for discovery. The court’s willingness to hear this civil liberties case involving CIA contractors was unprecedented.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Discovery – The pre-trial efforts of each party to obtain information and evidence.
  • Due Process – The fundamental, constitutional right to fair legal proceedings in which all parties will be given notice of the proceedings, and have an opportunity to be heard.