Definition: Civil Liberties

Civil Liberties vs. Human Rights

Jasmine Revolution Protestors in Tunisia
Protestors challenge the corrupt and oppressive regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. Photo: Christopher Furlong / Getty Images.

Civil liberties are rights that are guaranteed to the citizens or residents of a country or territory. They're a matter of fundamental law.

Civil Liberties vs. Human Rights 

Civil liberties generally differ from human rights, which are universal rights to which all human beings are entitled regardless of where they live. Think of civil liberties as rights that a government is contractually obligated to protect, usually by a constitutional bill of rights.

Human rights are rights implied by one's status as a person whether the government has agreed to protect them or not.

Most governments have adopted constitutional bills of rights that make some pretense of protecting basic human rights, so human rights and civil liberties overlap more often than they don't. When the word "liberty" is used in philosophy, it generally refers to what we would now call human rights rather than civil liberties because they're regarded as universal principles and not subject to a specific national standard.

The term "civil rights" is a near-synonym, but it often specifically refers to rights sought by African Americans during the American civil rights movement.

Some History 

The English phrase "civil liberty" was coined in a 1788 speech by James Wilson, a Pennsylvania state politician who was advocating the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Wilson said: 

We have remarked, that civil government is necessary to the perfection of society. We now remark that civil liberty is necessary to the perfection of civil government. Civil liberty is natural liberty itself, divested only of that part, which, placed in the government, produces more good and happiness to the community than if it had remained in the individual. Hence it follows, that civil liberty, while it resigns a part of natural liberty, retains the free and generous exercise of all the human faculties, so far as it is compatible with the public welfare.

But the concept of civil liberties dates back much further and most likely predates that of universal human rights. The 13th century English Magna Carta refers to itself as the "great charter of the liberties of England, and of the liberties of the forest" (magna carta libertatum), but we can trace the origin of civil liberties back much further to the Sumerian praise poem of Urukagina at around the 24th century BCE.

The poem which establishes the civil liberties of orphans and widows and creates checks and balances to prevent government abuses of power.

Contemporary Meaning 

In a contemporary U.S. context, the phrase "civil liberties" generally brings to mind the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a progressive advocacy and litigation organization that has promoted the phrase as part of its efforts to protect the authority of the U.S. Bill of Rights. The American Libertarian Party also claims to protect civil liberties but it has deemphasized civil liberties advocacy over the past several decades in favor of a more traditional form of paleoconservatism. It now prioritizes "state's rights" rather than personal civil liberties.

Neither major U.S. political party has a particularly impressive record on civil liberties, although the Democrats have historically been stronger on most issues due to their demographic diversity and relative independence from the Religious Right. Although the American conservative movement has had a more consistent record with respect to the Second Amendment and eminent domain, conservative politicians do not generally use the phrase "civil liberties" when referring to these issues.

They tend to avoid talking about the Bill of Rights for fear of being labeled moderate or progressive.

As has been largely true since the 18th century, civil liberties are not generally associated with conservative or traditionalist movements. When we consider that liberal or progressive movements have also historically failed to prioritize civil liberties, the necessity of aggressive civil liberties advocacy, independent of other political objectives, becomes clear. 

Some Examples 

"If the fires of freedom and civil liberties burn low in other lands, they must be made brighter in our own." President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1938 address to the National Education Association. Yet four years later, Roosevelt authorized the forcible internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the basis of ethnicity.

 

"You don't have any civil liberties if you're dead." Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) in a 2006 interview regarding post-9/11 legislation

"Manifestly, there is no civil liberties crisis in this country. People who claim there is must have a different goal in mind." Ann Coulter in a 2003 column