“Civil rights” and “civil liberties” are terms that are often used synonymously, interchangeably, but the terms are actually very distinct. Civil liberties are freedoms guaranteed to us by the Constitution to protect us from tyranny (think: our freedom of speech), while civil rights are the legal rights that protect individuals from discrimination (think: employment discrimination).
You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to a fair court trial. You also have the right to vote and the right to privacy. Americans are very familiar with these rights, but are they considered either of them? This article explores the differences between civil rights and civil liberties, with specific laws corresponding to each term.
Civil rights concern the basic right to be free from unequal treatment based on certain protected characteristics (race, gender, disability, etc.) in settings such as employment, education, housing, and access to public facilities. A civil rights violation occurs in designated situations where an individual is discriminated against on the basis of a protected characteristic. Most civil rights laws are established through the federal government via federal legislation or case law.
Civil liberties concern basic rights and freedoms that are guaranteed — either explicitly identified in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, or interpreted or inferred through the years by legislatures or the courts.
Civil liberties include:
Civil Rights v. Civil Liberties
The law differentiates between civil rights, which means the basic right of freedom from discrimination based on certain personal characteristics such as gender, race, or disability, and civil liberties which are basic freedoms. Civil liberties concern the actual basic freedoms; civil rights concern the treatment of an individual regarding certain rights. Unlike civil liberties, where individuals enjoy broad-based rights, civil rights contain a protective aspect of those rights based on certain characteristics.
One way to consider the difference between civil rights and civil liberties is to look at 1) what right is affected, and 2) whose right is affected.
For example, as an employee, you do not have the legal right to a promotion, mainly because getting a promotion is not a guaranteed “civil liberty.” However, as a female employee you do have the legal right to be free from discrimination in being considered for that promotion — you cannot legally be denied the promotion based on your gender (or race, or disability, etc.). By choosing not to promote a female worker solely because of the employee’s gender, the employer has committed a civil rights violation and has engaged in unlawful employment discrimination based on sex or gender.
Here’s another example: the right to marry is a civil liberty, while gay marriage is a civil rights matter. If a couple (either same-sex or opposite-sex) is denied a marriage license because the court clerk has decided not to issue them at all, then their civil liberties have been violated. But if the clerk denied marriage licenses only to LGBT couples, it is a civil rights violation.