Civil rights are rights that are bestowed by nations on those within their boundaries. A civil right is a right or privilege that can be enforced by an individual. This means that if a person violates another’s civil rights, it gives the later a right to an action for injury. Examples of civil rights are freedom of speech, press, and assembly; the right to vote; freedom from involuntary servitude; and the right to equality in public places. Violations of civil rights occur in instances of discrimination against an individual solely because of his/her membership in a particular group or class. Statutes have been enacted to prevent discrimination based on a person’s race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and in some instances, even sexual preference.
Civil rights include a class of rights and freedoms that protect individuals from unwarranted government action and ensure one’s ability to participate in civil and political affairs without discrimination or repression.
Civil rights laws include:
- Laws ensuring peoples’ physical integrity and safety and laws to make sure that people are not forced into labor.
- Laws protecting people from private (non-government) discrimination (based on gender, religion, race, sexual orientation, etc.)
- Laws providing equal access to health care, education, culture, etc.
Civil rights were among the first to be recognized and codified. In many countries, they are called constitutional rights and are included in a bill of rights or similar document. They are also defined in international human rights instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The first portion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Civil covers civil rights.
Since civil rights are often considered to be natural rights, they should be protected even if they are not codified. However, most democracies worldwide do have formal written guarantees of civil rights.
Custom also plays a role in protecting civil rights. Many of the civil rights are implied rights that courts find as existing even though not expressly guaranteed by written law or custom. One example is the right to privacy in the United States.
Although civil rights are considered to be universal rights that apply to all persons, the question of who specific civil rights apply to is a subject of some controversy. In many countries, citizens have greater protections against infringement of rights than non-citizens; at the same time, civil and political rights are considered to be universal rights that apply to all persons. When civil and political rights are not guaranteed to all as part of equal protection of laws, social unrest may ensue.
The most important expansion of civil rights in the United States was the enactment of the 13th and 14th Amendments. The 14th Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. In response to the 13th Amendment, various states enacted “black codes” which were intended to limit the civil rights of the newly freed slaves. In 1868, the 14th Amendment was passed to counter the “black codes” and ensure that no state “shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States… [or] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, [or] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Congress was also given power by section five of the 14th Amendment to pass any laws needed for its enforcement.
Later, Congress enacted numerous civil rights statutes to protect individuals from discrimination and from the deprivation of their civil rights. Section 1981 of Title 42 (Equal Rights under the Law) protects individuals from discrimination based on race in making and enforcing contracts, participating in lawsuits, and giving evidence. Other statutes that protect against discrimination include: Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights, Conspiracies to Interfere with Civil Rights, Conspiracy Against Rights of Citizens, Deprivation of Rights under Color of Law, and the Jurisdictional Statue for Civil Rights Cases.
The most prominent civil rights legislation since reconstruction is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in order regulate the actions of individuals. Although the 14th Amendment prohited discrimination, the Supreme Court limited Congressional enforcement of the 14th Amendment to state action. Congress, using its power to regulate interstate commerce, enacted the Civil Rights Act to forbid iscrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in public establishments that had a connection to interstate commerce. Public establishments were taken to include places of public accommodation (e.g., hotels, motels, and trailer parks), restaurants, gas stations, bars, taverns, and places of entertainment in general. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation also declared a strong legislative policy against discrimination in public schools and colleges which aided in desegregation. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination where the employer is engaged in interstate commerce. Congress has also passed numerous other laws dealing with employment discrimination.
The judiciary, most notably the Supreme Court, plays a crucial role in interpreting the extent of the civil rights. A single Supreme Court ruling can change the very nature of a right throughout the entire country. The federal courts are also crucial in mandating and supervising school desegregation programs and other programs established to rectify state or local discrimination. Further, state constitutions, statutes and municipal ordinances also provide further protection of civil rights.
The existence of civil rights and liberties are recognized internationally by numerous agreements and declarations. Often these rights are included in agreements in which nations pledge themselves to the general protection of Human Rights. The most notable international agreement on civil rights is the “The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” to which most nations of the world including the United States is a party.