Civil Liberties, Civil Rights, and Inequalities

What is the First Amendment? An overview of civil liberties, their history, and progress over time

The Bill of Rights
Actual malice
First Amendment
More than 1,700
Legalized same-sex marriage nationwide

What Are Civil Liberties?

The concept of civil liberties and civil rights is central to US politics. Civil liberties are the freedoms that citizens have from government interference, such as freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and press; civil rights refer to legal protections against discrimination based on race or gender.

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution, was adopted in 1791 and enshrined many of the civil liberties discussed above. These include freedom of speech, religion, press and assembly; protection from unreasonable searches and seizures; due process rights for criminal defendants; and prohibitions on cruel or unusual punishment.

The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) extended these protections to all citizens by incorporating them into state law. This means that states must abide by the same constitutional standards as the federal government when it comes to protecting individual rights.


First Amendment: Speech, Press, and Democracy

The First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and press, protecting citizens from government censorship. This right is essential for a functioning democracy, as it allows individuals to express their opinions without fear of retribution or suppression.


The Supreme Court has interpreted this right broadly, ruling in cases such as New York Times Co v Sullivan (1964) that public figures cannot sue for libel unless they can prove “actual malice” on the part of the speaker – i.e. the person accused of libel must have had full knowledge their claims were false.

Controversially, this provision for freedom of speech has also been used, in Citizens United v FEC (2010), to protect the right for corporations to make political contributions.

First Amendment: Religious Freedom & Accommodation

Freedom of religion is a fundamental right protected by the First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

This means that individuals have the right to freely practice their religion without interference from the government, and the government cannot establish or endorse any particular religion.


This right also includes what is known as “religious accommodation” in the workplace. This came to the fore in the 2015 Supreme Court case of EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores.

In this case, a Muslim woman applied for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch and was not hired because she wore a headscarf, which the company claimed violated their “look policy.” The Supreme Court ruled that this was a violation of her right to religious accommodation, as the company did not make reasonable efforts to accommodate her religious practice.

Civil War's Impact on Civil Rights

The Civil War (1861-1865) was pivotal in the history of civil rights and liberties for African Americans, leading to the Thirteenth Amendment of 1865, which abolished slavery throughout the United States.

Before the Civil War, the majority of African Americans had no civil rights. Slaves were considered property and had no legal standing in courts. They were denied education, the right to marry, the right to own property, and the right to vote. They were also subject to extreme physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their owners, and there was little to no legal recourse for these abuses.

After the Civil War, the 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution granted all citizens “equal protection of laws” regardless of race or color, as well as voting rights to African American men. However, despite these constitutional protections, African Americans faced significant challenges to their civil rights well into the 20th century.

Jim Crow Laws and Racial Inequality

Despite these legislative landmarks, from the 1870s many southern states reimposed laws that continued to deny black people basic civil rights, access to public facilities, and voting rights. These were known as “Jim Crow laws” – the term “Jim Crow” being a derogatory term for black people.

The Supreme Court’s 1896 decision in Plessy v Ferguson established “separate but equal” as the legal standard for race relations in America. This ruling allowed states to segregate public spaces by race, including schools, restaurants, theaters, parks and other places of public accommodation.

In addition to denying African Americans their civil liberties through segregation laws known as Jim Crow laws, many southern states also implemented poll taxes and harsh literacy tests to prevent African Americans (frequently poor and lacking proper education due to their discriminatory conditions) from voting.


Civil Rights Movement: Achievements and Leaders

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a powerful force for change that aimed to eradicate racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans.

The movement was spearheaded by influential figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and many other activists who utilized civil disobedience, grassroots organizing, and mass demonstrations to bring about change.

The movement achieved significant victories with the passage of landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which prohibited literacy tests and other discriminatory practices that had been used to deny black people access to voting booths.

Criminal Justice Reform and Racial Disparities

In recent years, criminal justice reform and policing have been recognized as civil rights issues due to the overrepresentation of African Americans in the prison system. According to the Sentencing Project, as of 2021, African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.

At the federal level, President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 which reduced disparities between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses – a move that was widely praised by civil rights advocates. Additionally, he commuted more than 1,700 sentences during his time in office – more than the past 13 presidents combined.

The killing of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the disproportionate impact of police brutality on communities of color. According to Mapping Police Violence, between 2013–2023 Black Americans were three times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans.

US Healthcare: Inequality and Debates

Despite spending more on healthcare than any other country, the US has some of the worst health outcomes among developed nations. In 2018, nearly 30 million Americans lacked health insurance coverage

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2012, known as Obamacare, sought to expand access to care by providing subsidies for low-income individuals and families, as well as mandating that all citizens have health insurance or face penalties.


Yet despite the ubiquity of public healthcare across other developed nations, in the US this policy is surprisingly divisive, with President Trump rolling back many of the bill’s provisions.

Meanwhile, many Democratic lawmakers are pushing for Medicare For All – a single payer system which would provide universal coverage regardless of income level or employment status.

While this proposal could potentially reduce costs overall by eliminating private insurers from the equation, opponents argue that it would be too expensive and lead to higher taxes for middle class Americans.

Abortion Rights: From Roe to Dobbs


The constitutional status of abortion in the United States is a highly debated and controversial topic. The Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy until the point at which the fetus is viable outside the womb, which is typically around 24 weeks of gestation. The Court based its decision on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects an individual’s right to privacy.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June 2022 overturned Roe by arguing that the right to abortion was not a deeply entrenched part of the nation’s historical or traditional values, nor was it recognized as a right when the Due Process Clause was ratified in 1868. This ruling demonstrated the highly politicized nature of Supreme Court judge nominations, as it followed the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett by President Trump, which shifted the balance of the Court in favor of conservative views.

Progress in LGBTQ+ Rights and Equality

The LGBTQ+ community has made significant strides in the fight for equal rights in America.

Before the 1960s, homosexuality was considered a criminal offense in most states, but the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City marked a turning point, galvanizing the community and led to the formation of organizations that worked tirelessly to challenge the legal and social status quo.

However, it was not until the 21st century that significant progress was made in the legal recognition of same-sex relationships. In 2003, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, effectively decriminalizing homosexuality nationwide. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), allowing same-sex couples to receive federal benefits. And in 2015, the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

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