Individuals in the United States enjoy a number of important civil liberties under the U.S. Constitution. When people talk about constitutional rights like freedom of speech or religion, they often refer to them as guarantees. But no rights are absolute. Government has the power to limit individuals’ freedom under certain circumstances, like when they’ve committed a crime. And the First Amendment doesn’t protect some speech, such as violent threats.
Still, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that certain rights are so “fundamental” that any law restricting them must have an especially strong purpose and be narrowly targeted to serve that purpose without unnecessary restrictions (the legal test known as “strict scrutiny”). Most of those rights are spelled out in the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court has also recognized other fundamental rights that aren’t specifically mentioned in the Constitution or its amendments (more on that below).
The Constitution generally discusses individuals’ rights by saying what the government can’t do. We’ve briefly summarized the most important constitutional rights for individuals below. (Click on the links for more detailed information.)
Expression and Faith
The First Amendment prohibits government interference with two core sets of individual rights:
- freedom of expression, including free speech, free press (including some protections for student journalists in public schools), and the freedom to assemble and petition the government; and
- freedom of religion, including the freedom to practice any religion (or none) and the separation of church and state.
As the Supreme Court now interprets the Second Amendment, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” applies to individuals. This means that government generally can’t restrict the right of law-abiding individuals to have weapons and use them for legal purposes. But guns rights aren't unlimited. Federal, state, and local governments may enact reasonable gun control laws to protect public safety.
Criminal Rights and the Police
The Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth, and Eighth Amendments protect a number of significant rights when people are dealing with law enforcement and facing criminal charges, including:
- freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures
- the right to remain silent and not to testify against themselves
- the right to counsel and a court-appointed attorney for defendants who can’t afford to hire their own lawyer
- the right to a speedy trial, as well as a trial by jury for serious crimes
- criminal defendants’ right to cross-examine witnesses against them and present their own witnesses
- protection from double jeopardy, and
- no cruel and unusual punishment.
Liberty and Fairness
The Fourteenth Amendment extended to the states the Fifth Amendment’s requirement for “due process of law” before government can take away anyone’s life, liberty, or property. Before this amendment was passed in 1866, the Bill of Rights applied only to actions by the federal government that limited individuals’ basic rights. Over the years since then, however, the U.S. Supreme Court found that most of the provisions in the Bill of Rights were “incorporated” in the due process clause—meaning that they also apply to actions by the states.
Based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s liberty protection, the Supreme Court has also recognized certain fundamental rights that aren’t specifically mentioned in the Constitution or its amendments but are an inherent part of liberty and are deeply rooted in this country’s tradition and history. Examples of these inherent rights include the right to marry and parent your children, freedom of association, privacy rights, and the right to travel between states.
Civil Rights Under State Constitutions
Even though states can’t limit the freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights, some state constitutions provide more expansive civil liberties than those in the federal constitution. For example, several states have explicit privacy protections that go beyond federal law, and many state constitutions specifically guarantee equal rights for women, even though the proposed federal Equal Rights Amendment was never adopted.
Speaking to a Lawyer
If you believe that any branch of government—including a public school, law enforcement, or an elected official—has violated your constitutional rights, consider speaking with a civil rights lawyer. An attorney experienced in this area should be able to explain how federal and/or state law (including the latest court cases) applies to your situation, as well as any legal actions you might take to address the problem. And if you’ve been arrested, an experienced criminal lawyer can help protect your civil rights throughout the criminal process.