Civil rights are the legal and constitutional guarantees protecting individuals and groups from discrimination. These rights are designed ensure equal access to opportunities and resources (Hamlin, 2023).
While the concept is closely tied to the civil rights movement for the rights of African Americans that was prominent in the 1960s, the term “civil rights” is much broader.
Examples of civil rights include but are not limited to the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, the right to government services, the right to use public facilities, and the right to public education.
Civil rights are not freedoms gained by placing restraints on governmental power.
Civil rights are guarantees that ensure equal treatment under the law and equal access to certain essential opportunities, resources, and facilities.
They also include protections against discrimination based on personal characteristics such as race, sexual orientation, religion, gender, and so on.
In contrast to “human rights” or “natural rights,” civil rights are granted by legal entities and may or may not be thought of as belonging to all human beings on the basis of their humanity.
|Feature||Civil Rights||Natural Rights||Human Rights|
|Definition||Rights granted by a government or society to its citizens, typically enshrined in laws or constitutions. Examples include freedom of speech, the right to vote, and equal protection under the law.||Inherent and universal rights that are not dependent on the laws or customs of any particular society or government. Examples include the right to life, liberty, and property.||Basic rights that are inherently possessed by all human beings, regardless of their race, gender, nationality, or any other characteristic. Examples include the right to education, healthcare, and a fair trial.|
|Origin||Developed over time through legal and social changes.||Arise from natural law, often associated with philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.||Emerged in the aftermath of World War II and are enshrined in international law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.|
|Scope||Specific to a particular society or government.||Universal and apply to all people in all societies.||Universal and apply to all people in all societies.|
|Enforcement||Typically enforced by the government or legal system of the society in question.||Not dependent on any particular government or legal system, but often protected by international law.||Protected by international law and enforced by international organizations such as the United Nations.|
|Examples||Right to vote, freedom of speech, equal protection under the law.||Right to life, liberty, property, pursuit of happiness.||Right to education, healthcare, fair trial, freedom from discrimination.|
Civil Rights Examples
The right to vote, also known as suffrage or political franchise, is generally considered a fundamental civil right.
In the United States, this right is recognized by the 15th Amendment of the Constitution. It states:
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (U.S. Const. amend. XV).
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many states used discriminatory practices to prevent African Americans from voting, despite the fact that this amendment was ratified in 1870.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 mentioned above was aimed specifically at this: preventing such discriminatory practices from reoccurring.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This had a major impact on minority voters, as it allowed states with a history of voting discrimination to change voting laws without federal approval.
School integration in the United States, also known as desegregation, was an important civil rights issue.
Desegregation refers to the process by which race-based segregation within American schools was ended. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education ruled segregation of public schools based on race as unconstitutional.
However, the decision was not immediately enforced, and many states continued to operate racially segregated schools.
As a result, school segregation significantly declined during the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, it made a resurgence in the 1990s (Reardon & Owens, 2014).
Affirmative action or positive discrimination refers to the policies and practices that seek to include particular groups in organizations or governments based on their gender, race, sexuality, nationality, and other characteristics.
The main idea is that such practices try to bridge inequalities by representing underrepresented groups (Fullinwider, 2018).
For example, if the executive group of an organization is only 25% female, then an affirmative action policy would involve only hiring female executives until there is gender parity. This may inadvertently mean qualified men miss out, with the recognition that qualified women may have missed out on opportunities for a long time previously.
Affirmative action aims to achieve cultural change within an organization and build intergenerational equality.
These rights refer to protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is still legal in many states.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on sex. The Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (576 U.S. 644) recognized the constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
However, this is still a contentious civil rights area even in the United States and especially in developing countries.
Immigrant and refugee rights are considered a civil right by people who hold that all people regardless of social status should be treated with dignity.
To deter asylum seekers, governments around the world including Australia and the USA implement policies aimed at restricting the legal, social, and political rights of asylum seekers.
For example, Australia has changed the laws around it maritime borders to ensure asylum seekers arriving by boat have less rights than people arriving by plane. This, to many, would constitute a violation of those peoples’ civil rights.
In some countries, women’s rights are institutionalized and supported by law, but in others they are suppressed.
Civil rights issues in this area include the right to bodily autonomy, the right to vote, the right to hold public office, the right to work, access to equal pay, reproductive rights, property rights, and many more (Lockwood, 2006).
Freedom of speech is a fundamental civil right in the USA and written in the constitution, but many other countries consider it an implied right, or worse, is entirely denied.
This concept supports the freedom of an individual or community to articulate their opinions without fear of legal consequences, retaliation, and censorship.
In most jurisdictions around the world, free speech has limitations such as libel, slander, hate speech, copyright violation, and so on.
The right to a fair trial is a fundamental civil and human right according to most international institutions.
It is proclaimed in Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, n.d.), Article 6 of the UK Human Rights Act of 1998, and many more.
Usually, this includes ensuring the judiciary is independent from influence by governments and other actors; and all people deserve access to legal representation.
What constitutes a truly fair trial may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but the central idea remains similar.
Access to a basic or primary education is also considered a fundamental civil right for many.
In the USA, it is protected by various laws and regulations like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
However, the access of minority students to post-secondary education remains restricted.
Reasons for this disparity include college readiness, financial backgrounds, lack of resources, and so on.
The right to privacy aims to restrain governmental and private actions that impinge upon personal privacy.
It is recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The term “right to privacy” does not appear in the document, but Article 12 states:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks” (United Nations, n.d.).
In the United States, the Constitution is the foundation of civil rights. As the 14th Amendment to the Constitution states:
“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”(U.S. Const. amend. XIV)
This amendment has been used to end practices that discriminate against marginalized groups. Other amendments to the Constitution, such as the 15th, 19th, and 26th, have also expanded voting rights (U.S. Const. amend. XV), ensured equal rights for women (U.S. Const. amend. XIX), and lowered the voting age to 18 respectively (U.S. Const. amend. XXVI).
Other Key legislations include:
- Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub. L. 88–352, 78 Stat. 241, enacted July 2, 1964): Outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
- Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Pub. L. 89–110, 79 Stat. 437, enacted August 6, 1965): Prohibits racial discrimination in voting.
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Pub. L. 101–336, 104 Stat. 327): offers the same protections as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but this Act prohibits discrimination based on disability.
While laws and policies exist to protect the civil rights of marginalized individuals and groups, these rights are not always upheld.
Discrimination hasn’t been “solved” or “ended.” Hence the need for ongoing efforts and activism regarding civil rights.
Civil rights are legal protections or guarantees. In contrast to “human rights” or “natural rights,” these rights are granted by legal entities and may or may not be thought of as belonging to all human beings on the basis of their humanity.
Fullinwider, R. (2018). Affirmative Action. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/affirmative-action/
Hamlin, R. (2023, January 5). civil rights. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/civil-rights
Immigrants’ Rights. (n.d.). American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved January 20, 2023, from https://www.aclu.org/issues/immigrants-rights
Lockwood, B. B. (2006). Women’s Rights: A Human Rights Quarterly Reader. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015)
Reardon, S. F., & Owens, A. (2014). 60 Years After Brown: Trends and Consequences of School Segregation. Annual Review of Sociology, 40(1), 199–218. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-071913-043152
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Pub. L. 101–336, 104 Stat. 327).
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Pub. L. 88–352, 78 Stat. 241, enacted July 2, 1964).
The Education Amendments of 1972 (Pub. L. 92–318, 86 Stat. 235).
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Pub.L. 101-476, 104 Stat. 1142).
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (enacted October 22, 2009).
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Pub. L. 89–110, 79 Stat. 437, enacted August 6, 1965).
United Nations. (n.d.). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. United Nations; United Nations. Retrieved December 14, 2022, from https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights