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American Government 2e


American Government 2eSummary

4.1 What Are Civil Liberties?

The Bill of Rights is designed to protect the freedoms of individuals from interference by government officials. Originally these protections were applied only to actions by the national government; different sets of rights and liberties were protected by state constitutions and laws, and even when the rights themselves were the same, the level of protection for them often differed by definition across the states. Since the Civil War, as a result of the passage and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and a series of Supreme Court decisions, most of the Bill of Rights’ protections of civil liberties have been expanded to cover actions by state governments as well through a process of selective incorporation. Nonetheless there is still vigorous debate about what these rights entail and how they should be balanced against the interests of others and of society as a whole.

4.2 Securing Basic Freedoms

The first four amendments of the Bill of Rights protect citizens’ key freedoms from governmental intrusion. The First Amendment limits the government’s ability to impose certain religious beliefs on the people, or to limit the practice of one’s own religion. The First Amendment also protects freedom of expression by the public, the media, and organized groups via rallies, protests, and the petition of grievances. The Second Amendment today protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms for personal defense in the home, while the Third Amendment limits the ability of the government to allow the military to occupy civilians’ homes except under extraordinary circumstances. Finally, the Fourth Amendment protects our persons, homes, and property from unreasonable searches and seizures, and it protects the people from unlawful arrests. However, all these provisions are subject to limitations, often to protect the interests of public order, the good of society as a whole, or to balance the rights of some citizens against those of others.

4.3 The Rights of Suspects

The rights of those suspected, accused, and convicted of crimes, along with rights in civil cases and economic liberties, are protected by the second major grouping of amendments within the Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment secures various procedural safeguards, protects suspects’ right to remain silent, forbids trying someone twice at the same level of government for the same criminal act, and limits the taking of property for public uses. The Sixth Amendment ensures fairness in criminal trials, including through a fair and speedy trial by an impartial jury, the right to assistance of counsel, and the right to examine and compel testimony from witnesses. The Seventh Amendment ensures the right to jury trials in most civil cases (but only at the federal level). Finally, the Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive fines and bails, as well as “cruel and unusual punishments,” although the scope of what is cruel and unusual is subject to debate.

4.4 Interpreting the Bill of Rights

The interrelationship of constitutional amendments continues to be settled through key court cases over time. Because it was not explicitly laid out in the Constitution, privacy rights required clarification through public laws and court precedents. Important cases addressing the right to privacy relate to abortion, sexual behavior, internet activity, and the privacy of personal texts and cell phone calls. The place where we draw the line between privacy and public safety is an ongoing discussion in which the courts are a significant player.

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