The words “rights” and “liberties” both appear multiple times throughout the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.
But those words are very similar in the dictionary.
To make things even more confusing, both terms are used relatively interchangeably in today’s modern and divisive political discourse.
But, there are some key differences between rights and liberties that you should be aware of so you’re never caught off guard during a debate or political discussion.
Let’s investigate these differences and unblur the lines:
Civil rights can be thought of as “positive” actions that the government is allowed to provide.
A “right” in the legal sense is something that is bestowed to every citizen either naturally (this is where the phrase natural rights comes into play) or by their government.
For instance, the US federal government guarantees all citizens the right to vote and the right to be protected against discrimination.
This is why the civil rights movement was dubbed that precise term, rather than the civil liberties movement.
Civil rights are important because they protect minority groups against the majority rule, which can occasionally become tyrannical.
A more famous example might be the “Miranda” rights that one is read when one is arrested by the state or federal government: “You have the right to remain silent, to have an attorney, to have a trial judged by your peers”, etc.
Civil liberties, on the other hand, are “negative” to the government in that they are protections that all citizens have no matter what.
For example, the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights contains several liberties that protect citizens in multiple ways.
For instance, citizens can:
- Practice whatever religion they like
- Enjoy freedom of speech
- Utilize freedom of the press
- And so on...
In this way, civil liberties are things that you have regardless of what the federal government says.
The federal government cannot punish people for speaking freely because of their liberty, and freedom of speech is not a right that the government can take away under certain circumstances.
The Difference Between the Two
In a nutshell, it’s easiest to determine whether you’re talking about a civil right or liberty by focusing on whether you’re gaining a privilege or being protected against something being taken away.
For example, an employee doesn’t have a legal right to a promotion. But, they do have a legal right to be free from discrimination – this means that a company can’t discriminate based on gender, race, or anything else.
In contrast, the right to marry is a civil liberty. That’s because everyone can decide whether they want to marry another person, and it’s not something the government hands down or decides for others.
This is the crux of the gay marriage debate, in that one half of the debate considers it to be a right while the other considers it to be a liberty that’s already defined.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, however, both civil rights and liberties are things that we Americans enjoy.
Indeed, American rights and liberties have shaped the Western world for centuries.
Don’t think of one as more important than the other – both shape and define your freedoms in different but valuable ways!
Thank you for reading… United We Stand