The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution are commonly known as the Bill of Rights. They set the groundwork for what we today consider our basic civil liberties. These amendments guarantee the following rights:
- Right to free speech. The First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom to assemble peaceably.
- Right to bear arms. The Second Amendment guarantees each state’s right to keep a militia, and arguably the right of individuals to keep firearms.
- No unauthorized quartering of soldiers. The Third Amendment prohibits soldiers from being quartered in private residences during peacetime without permission, nor during war time except under special circumstances.
- Freedom from search and seizure. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the right against search and seizure of personal property or private papers.
- Freedom from self-incrimination. The Fifth Amendment protects against selfincrimination and double jeopardy, and it guarantees due process.
- Trial by jury. Under the Sixth Amendment, individuals have a right to be tried by a jury of their peers in criminal cases. The Seventh Amendment guarantees trial by jury in civil cases involving certain set sums of money.
- Protection from excessive bail. The Eighth Amendment protects against excessive bail and also against cruel and unusual punishment.
- Unlisted rights and powers. The Ninth Amendment states that any rights not listed are retained by the people, and the Tenth Amendment states that powers not delegated to the federal government are retained by either the states or the people.
Other key amendments guaranteeing civil rights and liberties include the Thirteenth Amendment (which prohibits slavery), the Fourteenth Amendment (which granted citizenship to former slaves), the Fifteenth Amendment (which guaranteed that the right to vote could not be denied on account of race), and the Nineteenth Amendment (which granted women the right to vote). The Twenty-Fourth Amendment, ratified in 1962, prohibited the imposition of a voters’ poll tax on any individual
The Constitution was designed so that it could be amended, but the amendment process is by design not easy. Both houses of Congress must approve a proposed amendment by a two-thirds majority, and the amendment must then be ratified by three quarters of the states within a specific time frame (typically seven years). This procedure keeps the Constitution from becoming bogged down with scores of frivolous or narrow-issue amendments. This can work for or against the interests of civil libertarians. The proposed “Equal Rights Amendment” was passed by Congress in 1972 but failed to get ratified even after the ratification period was extended by three years. A proposed amendment in 2004 that would have imposed a constitutional prohibition on same-sex marriage did not receive enough Congressional support to be voted into existence.