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Civil Liberties in the United States



The U.S. Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, provides strong protections of individual civil liberties, or freedoms from government interference with fundamental rights. Among the civil liberties protected by the Bill of Rights are freedom of speech and expression; freedom of the press, religion, and assembly; the right to bear arms; freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; the right to a fair trial and due process of law; the right to equal protection of the laws; freedom from cruel and unusual punishment; and the right to privacy. Many decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have clarified these rights and provided guidance on what limits, if any, can be placed upon them. The provisions of the Bill of Rights originally only restricted actions of the federal government. Over time, many of these provisions have been extended to restrict such actions by state governments. This broadening of the Bill of Rights is known as incorporation.

At A Glance

  • The promise of adding a Bill of Rights, a collection of guarantees for individual freedoms and of limitations on federal government power, was a key factor in ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
  • The courts accept limitations on the time, space, and manner of speech as long as those limits meet strict standards that ignore content, are narrowly defined, reflect a strong government interest, and provide alternatives.
  • Despite the 1st Amendment, Congress has passed laws prohibiting speech criticizing the government, which the courts upheld in the context of World War I and the Cold War, but a 1969 decision used a sharper standard in determining whether speech promoting radical political goals could be limited.
  • The courts have extended 1st Amendment protections to include symbolic speech—actions or nonverbal expressions that represent ideas—and campaign contributions.
  • Some types of speech are generally unprotected by the 1st Amendment—defamation (including libel and slander), obscenity, child pornography, the use of fighting words, and hate speech.
  • The Zenger trial provided an important protection for freedom of the press in colonial times, and the Crosswell case from 1804 introduced the principle that truth was a defense against charges of libel.
  • Three landmark Supreme Court casesNear v. Minnesota (1931), New York Times Company v. Sullivan (1964), and New York Times Company v. United States (1971)—expanded protections to the freedom of the press by prohibiting prior restraint, protecting the press from statements about public figures, and extending the ban on prior restraint in a national security case.
  • With origins in colonial times, American civil liberties include freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion.
  • In rulings on the establishment clause, the Supreme Court upheld the strict separation of church and state, articulating the three principles of the Lemon test to determine whether a law with a religious impact is constitutional.
  • In Cantwell v. Connecticut, Wisconsin v. Yoder, and Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, the Supreme Court struck down state or city actions seen as infringing on individuals' free exercise of religion. However, in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources, Oregon v. Smith, it upheld state action on the grounds that free exercise of religion does not remove the duty to comply with a valid law.
  • The freedom of assembly may be subject to certain limitations, such as denial on grounds of public safety, or restrictions, such as requirements regarding the time, place, and manner of assembly.
  • Two key Supreme Court decisions, District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, made in the early 2000s upheld the right to own a gun under the 2nd Amendment and applied this right to state and local governments.
  • Following the 4th Amendment protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures," the Supreme Court adopted the exclusionary rule, which bars illegally obtained evidence from being used in a trial.
  • Based on the 5th Amendment guarantee of due process and protection against self-incrimination, the Supreme Court requires police to provide suspects with a Miranda warning before interrogating them.
  • Under the 6th Amendment, defendants must be provided with a lawyer even if they cannot afford one and must be given a speedy trial before a jury in the state where the offense occurred.
  • The 7th Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by jury in civil cases, though that right can be waived by a defendant.
  • The 8th Amendment prevents the state from setting excessive bail when holding an individual in custody before trial and from pronouncing excessive sentences on those found guilty of crimes, a provision that has prompted litigation over the death penalty and resulted in court decisions placing limits on its use.
  • The right to privacy is not specified in the Constitution, but it has been inferred to exist through the provisions of several amendments and has been the basis of key judicial rulings regarding birth control and abortion.
  • Through the doctrine of incorporation, which rests on the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, most Bill of Rights freedoms have been extended to state governments.