18 Civil Liberties Examples

civil liberties examples and definition, explained below

Civil liberties refer to fundamental freedoms that cannot be curtailed (i.e. prevented or undermined) by governments or others in society.

The concept of civil liberty comes from classical liberal philosophy of the Enlightenment period, and is most famously upheld by the US constitution, which was heavily influenced by Enlightenment liberalism.

A civil liberty is a fundamental freedom, such as the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to due process. No government law can be passed that will interfere with these fundamental civil rights.

Civil Liberties Examples

1. Freedom of Speech

This civil liberty, protected in the United States under the First Amendment to the Constitution, allows anybody in the nation to express their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs freely.

It prevents the government from interfering or retaliating, and can also prevent censorship (Cornell Law School, 2020).

This law isn’t only in the USA – most liberal democracies have free speech enshrined in law to some extent or another, but this is sometimes curtailed (such as is Germany, where certain WWII speech and symbolism is banned).

An example of this civil liberty in action is the Westboro Baptist Chruch, who can protest at soldiers’ funerals, despite this being extremely offensive.

Freedom of Speech Example
Whenever you go out to protest, or you say something that might be considered offensive or a minority opinion, your right to say that is underpinned by freedom of speech.

2. Freedom of the Press

Also protected under the First Amendment, this liberty ensures refers to freedom of speech for the media, such as newspapers, YouTubers, TV hosts, and so forth.

It gives them the right to distribute information and opinion without government intervention. This civil liberty is not present in many authoritarian nations, however, which often control the media narrative through state puppet media, and find ways to shut down dissenting voices.

Countries that lack this civil liberty to some extent or another include Singapore, Vietnam, China, and Russia (Cornell Law School, 2020). Even in the USA, the hunting-down of Julian Assange is seen as a possible infringement on press freedom.

Freedom of the Press Example
The existence of obviously politically biased media, such as Fox News and MSNBC, is thanks to this principle. Other nations may outright ban media organizations that go against the official government narrative.

3. Right to Privacy

The right to privacy refers to everyone’s right not to be unduly searched or otherwise have our private lives infringed upon by the government or police.

Though not explicitly mentioned in the US Constitution, the US Supreme Court has upheld the right to privacy based on various amendments (Cornell Law School, 2020).

Example
The police can’t just walk into your home without invitation. They usually have to ask a judge for a warrant and the judge has to see that they have reasonable cause to invade your privacy, such as some evidence indicating you might be doing something unlawful in your house.

4. Freedom of Religion

Religious freedom is another civil liberty on which the USA was founded. This First Amendment right ensures the freedom to practice any religion or no religion at all, without anyone being able to prevent you from doing so (Cornell Law School, 2020).

This freedom is existent in just about all liberal democracies.

A real-life example is the 2014 Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. In this court case, the US Supreme court ruled a company is allowed to have company-wide healthcare plans that do not provide contraception coverage because that company has a religious belief against it (Liptak, 2014).

Example
The pioneers who first arrived on the American continent were fleeing Europe where their freedom to practice their non-Anglican religions was being oppressed by the British government.

4. Right to a Fair Trial

Without a fair trial, people could be arrested and imprisoned falsely, or because they are a threat to the government of other powerful actors.

The Sixth Amendment of the US constitution guarantees the rights of everyone to have a public trial in front of a jury, without unnecessary delay, in order to plead their innocence.

Furthermore, defendants are allowed the right to a lawyer and an impartial jury, and they must be allowed to know who their accuser is and what the accusations are (Cornell Law School, 2020). Similar rules are in place in most liberal democracies.

Example
When people are arrested, they cannot be sent straight to prison. They must be araigned before a judge who will usually release them on bail until their court date, unless they are demonstrably a flight risk or threat to society.

5. Right to Equal Protection

Equal protection under the law means that nobody should be legally or institutionally discriminated against based upon identity factors such as race, class, gender, and sexuality.

This is in the Fourteenth Amendment of the US constitution, as well as in most liberal democracies’ constitutions or legal frameworks.

Example
This civil liberty was the one that delivered same-sex marriage, where the supreme court held that same-sex couples should have the same protections as opposite-sex couples.

6. Right Against Self-Incrimination

The term “plead the fifth” is famous from Hollywood movies. It refers to invoking the Fifth Amendment of the United States, which protects people from having to testify against themselves.

In other words, if you have done something wrong, you don’t have to tell the court. You may also know this from the Miranda Rights statement: “you have the right to remain silent” (Cornell Law School, 2020). 

Example
The right against self-incrimination was famously invoked by former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who pleaded the Fifth during the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election (Harris & Barrett, 2017).

7. Right to Vote

The right to vote is a central pillar of all of the world’s true democracies. It enshrines the important principle that it’s the people of the nation who select who will make their laws for them, underpinning the concept of “government by the people for the people.”

In the USA, this is so important that the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments to the Constitution all protect citizens’ right to vote, regardless of race, sex, or age (over 18).

Furthermore, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to underpin this right for African American citizens who have historically had their right to vote curtailed by discriminatory laws (Berman, 2015).

Example
Come election day, everyone over 18 who is a citizen is allowed to go and cast one ballot, demonstrating their equal vote among all others to choose their next political representatives.

8. Freedom of Assembly

Freedom of assembly refers to the right to protest. This right is a controversial one, because freedom to assemble often comes up against people’s freedom of movement – such as when the Trucker protest in Canada blocked people’s access to parliament house in 2021, or when Just Stop Oil protesters in the UK block public highways.

So, often, laws need to be passed that simultaneously secure freedomof assembly while also ensuring this does not impinge on others’ ability to engage in commerce, get their children to school, and so forth.

Freedom of Assembly Example
Generally, governments are not allowed to stop a protest from happening unless it is a threat to society or the functioning of public spaces, etc. A peaceful protest generally has to be allowed to take place.

9. Right to Petition the Government

The First Amendment also grants individuals the right to “petition” the government without fear of punishment or reprisals (Cornell Law School, 2020).

Generally, this is seen as the right to either complain to the government, literally send them a signed petition, or even seek the assistance of public elected officials.

Example
A local organization who gets 1,000 people to sign a petition is allowed to send that petition to their representative, and the representative is not allowed to punish them for doing so.

10. Right to Freedom from Involuntary Servitude

This refers to the right to be a free person, not in servitude to anyone, and not to have to work without pay.

This is a natural right, but also a civil liberty afforded to people in the United States under the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished involuntary servitude except as a punishment for a crime meted out by the courts (Cornell Law School, 2020).

11. Right to Due Process

Due process refers to a person’s right to be able to stand before a jury and plead your case. You cannot be imprisoned or punished until after courts find you guilty.

For example, in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, American citizens have the right to “life, liberty, or property” and cannot have these taken without due process of law (Cornell Law School, 2020).

This includes both procedural due process and substantive due process.

12. Right to a Jury Trial

Depending on the country, you may have the right to trial by jury rather than trial by judge.

The judge will still be there, but the jury are the ones who decide if someone is guilty or not. In the USA, this is very common.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a trial by an impartial jury in criminal cases, and the Seventh Amendment preserves this right in most civil cases as well (Cornell Law School, 2020).

Example
This right was highlighted in the highly publicized trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995, where a jury acquitted Simpson of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman after a lengthy and closely-watched trial (Toobin, 1996).

13. Right to Counsel

Enshrined in the Sixth Amendment, this right ensures that in criminal prosecutions, the accused has the right to the assistance of counsel for his or her defense (Cornell Law School, 2020).

The landmark case of Miranda v. Arizona (1966) is a key example, as the Supreme Court ruled that detained criminal suspects must be informed of their right to an attorney and against self-incrimination prior to police questioning (Schultz, 2010).

14. Freedom from Double Jeopardy

This Fifth Amendment right protects individuals from being prosecuted twice for the same offense (Cornell Law School, 2020).

An instance of this right being invoked can be seen in the case of United States v. Dixon (1993), where the Supreme Court ruled that successive prosecutions for contempt of court and the underlying offense were not a violation of the double jeopardy clause (Supreme Court of the United States, 1993).

15. Right to Confront Witnesses

The Sixth Amendment ensures that those accused of a crime have the right to confront and cross-examine the witnesses against them (Cornell Law School, 2020).

This was demonstrated in the trial of Harvey Weinstein in 2020, where Weinstein’s defense team had the opportunity to cross-examine the individuals accusing him of sexual assault (Ransom, 2020).

17. Right to a Speedy Trial

The Sixth Amendment guarantees a speedy trial to prevent the government from imprisoning individuals for extended periods of time before a trial.

This is so governments don’t keep delaying trial to keep political prisoners in prison without actually taking them before a court to prove the crime. It also ensures that people who are innocent are not locked up without due process.

The 1972 Barker v. Wingo case is a significant instance where the Supreme Court established a four-part test to determine what constitutes a speedy trial (Supreme Court of the United States, 1972).

18. Right to Marital Privacy

Although not explicitly stated in the Constitution, the right to marital privacy is inferred from several amendments. In the landmark case of Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Supreme Court struck down a state law that restricted access to contraceptives. The court argued in their devision that restriction of access to contraceptives violated the right to marital privacy (Greenhouse, 2010).

Conclusion

Civil liberties are essential for a free democratic society. Different nations have different approaches to each of the above civil liberties, but in general, most liberal democratic nations have as a core principle that civil liberties should be established and upheld, regardless of the government of the day.

References

Alvarez, L., & Buckley, C. (2013). Zimmerman Is Acquitted in Trayvon Martin Killing. The New York Times.

Berman, A. (2015). Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Chenoweth, E., & Pressman, J. (2017). This is what we learned by counting the women’s marches. The Washington Post.

Cornell Law School. (2020). First Amendment. Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment

Greenwald, G., MacAskill, E., & Poitras, L. (2013). Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations. The Guardian.

Harris, S., & Barrett, D. (2017). Flynn will invoke Fifth Amendment, source says. CNN.

Liptak, A. (2012). Justices Say GPS Tracker Violated Privacy Rights. The New York Times.

Liptak, A. (2014). Supreme Court Rejects Contraceptives Mandate for Some Corporations. The New York Times.

Liptak, A. (2015). Supreme Court Ruling Makes Same-Sex Marriage a Right Nationwide. The New York Times.

Mandery, E. (2013). A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America. W. W. Norton & Company.

Ransom, J. (2020). Weinstein’s Lawyers Have 2 Goals: Undermine Accusers and Prosecutors. The New York Times.

Schultz, D. (2010). Encyclopedia of the United States Constitution. Facts on File.

Supreme Court of the United States. (1993). United States v. Dixon. https://www.oyez.org/cases/1992/91-1231


Supreme Court of the United States. (2019). Timbs v. Indiana. https://www.oyez.org/cases/2018/17-1091

Toobin, J. (1996). The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson. Random House.

Wills, G. (1964). Gideon’s Trumpet. Vintage.

Chris
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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