Civil liberties vs. civil rights

A viewer asked this question on 8/3/2000:

what comparison is there between civil liberties and civil rights.

JesseGordon gave this response on 8/3/2000:

The terms are pretty much used synonymously, but I'll make the distinction that "civil liberties" means your conceptual rights and "civil rights" means your legal rights.

In those terms, "civil liberties" are your personal rights as spelled out in the Constitution and other founding documents, such as the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, etc.

"Civil rights" are the particulars of how those vague concepts are implemented in law. Under this definition, our civil liberties don't change (except when we amend the constitution) but our civil rights change regularly as new laws are made or new interpretations are ruled upon.

Some examples of civil rights laws are:
-- Affirmative action rulings, which require preferential hiring of under-represented minority and gender groups;
-- The Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that public places provide access for people with disabilities;
-- Vermont's recent Civil Union statute, which allows homosexual couples to get married.

None of those laws change the basics underlying civil liberty (the right to equal treatment is the basis of all of them), but they have a big effect on people's legal rights.

The philosophical basis for most controversial civil rights law (like those above) is the idea that a "right" doesn't exist at all if it can't be enforced or exercised. Enforcing and exercising rights often means that other people are required to do things or pay for things, which is where the controversy comes in. For example, blacks had the "right" to equal treatment in job hiring before affirmative action, but had no means to enforce equal representation in the job place until Affirmative Action laws took effect. And disabled people had the "right" to go to any public place, but until the ADA took effect, they had no means of compelling business owners to build ramps for wheelchairs, for example.

Politicians (and most people) generally agree on the basic underlying principles that I've called "civil liberties." But the legal implementations that I've called "civil rights" is a hot political topic right now and will likely continue to be one for years to come. You can check out what the current crop of politicians say about civil rights issues at

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