What Are Individual Rights? Definition and Examples

Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence of the United States.

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Individual rights are the rights needed by each individual to pursue their lives and goals without interference from other individuals or the government. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as stated in the United States Declaration of Independence are typical examples of individual rights.

Individual Rights Definition

Individual rights are those considered so essential that they warrant specific statutory protection from interference. While the U.S. Constitution, for example, divides and restricts the powers of the federal and state governments to check their own and each other’s power, it also expressly ensures and protects certain rights and liberties of individuals from government interference. Most of these rights, such as the First Amendment’s prohibition of government actions that limit the freedom of speech and the Second Amendment's protection of the right to keep and bear arms, are enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Other individual rights, however, are established throughout the Constitution, such as the right to trial by jury in Article III and the Sixth Amendment, and the Due Process of Law Clause found in the post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment

Many individual rights protected by the Constitution deal with criminal justice, such as the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable governmental searches and seizures and the Fifth Amendment’s well-known right against self-incrimination. Other individual rights are established by the U.S. Supreme Court in its interpretations of the often vaguely worded rights found in the Constitution.

Individual rights are often considered in contrast to group rights, the rights of groups based on the enduring characteristics of their members. Examples of group rights include the rights of an indigenous people that its culture should be respected and the rights of a religious group that it should be free to engage in collective expressions of its faith and that its sacred sites and symbols should not be desecrated.

Common Individual Rights

Along with political rights, the constitutions of democracies around the world protect the legal rights of people accused of crimes from unfair or abusive treatment at the hands of the government. As in the United States, most democracies guarantee all people the due process of law in dealing with the government. Also, most constitutional democracies protect the personal rights of all individuals under their jurisdictions. Examples of these commonly protected individual rights include:

Religion and Belief

Most democracies ensure the right to freedom of religion, belief, and thought. This freedom includes the right of all individuals to practice, discuss, teach, and promote the religion or belief of their choice. This includes the right to wear religious clothing and take part in religious rituals. People are free to change their religion or belief and to embrace a wide range of non-religious beliefs including atheism or agnosticism, satanism, veganism, and pacifism. Democracies typically limit the rights of religious freedom only when necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or to protect the rights and freedoms of others.

Privacy

Mentioned in the constitutions of more than 150 countries, the right to privacy refers to the concept that an individual’s personal information is protected from public scrutiny. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once called it “the right to be left alone.” The right to privacy has been interpreted to encompass the right to personal autonomy or to choose whether or not to engage in certain acts. However, privacy rights usually only pertain to family, marriage, motherhood, reproduction, and parenting.

Like religion, the right to privacy is often balanced against society’s best interests, such as maintaining public safety. For example, while Americans know the government collects personal information, most find such surveillance acceptable, especially when necessary to protect national security.

Personal Property

Personal property rights refer to the philosophical and legal ownership and use of resources. In most democracies, individuals are guareteed the right to accumulate, hold, assign, rent, or sell their property to others. Personal property may be either tangible and intangible. Tangible property includes items such as land, animal, merchandise, and jewelry. Intangible property includes items like stocks, bonds, patents, and copyrights to intellectual property.

Basic property rights ensure the possessor the continuous peaceful possession of both tangible and intangible property to the exclusion of others except persons who can be proven to hold a legally superior right or title to such property. They also ensure the possessor the right to recover personal property that has been illegally taken from them.

Rights of Speech and Expression

While the freedom of speech, as stated by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, protects the right of all individuals to express themselves, it encompasses far more than simple speech. As has been interpreted by the courts, “expression” can include religious communications, political speech or peaceful demonstration, voluntary association with others, petitioning the government, or printed publication of opinion. In this manner, certain non-verbal “speech actions,” which express opinions, such as burning the U.S. flag, are treated as protected speech.

It is important to note that the freedom of speech and expression protects individuals from the government, not from other individuals. No federal, state, or local government body may take any action that prevents or discourage individuals from expressing themselves. However, freedom of speech does not prohibit private entities, such as businesses, from limiting or prohibiting certain forms of expression. For example, when the owners of some American professional football teams banned their players from kneeling rather than standing during the performance of the National Anthem as a form of protest against police shootings of unarmed Black Americans, they could not be deemed to have violated their employees’ rights of free speech.

History in the United States

The doctrine of individual rights in the United States was first formally expressed in the Declaration of Independence, approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, more than a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. While the Declaration’s primary purpose was to detail the reasons the thirteen American Colonies could no longer be a part of the British Empire, its primary author, Thomas Jefferson, also stressed the importance of individual rights to a free society. The philosophy was embraced not only by Americans but by people seeking freedom from oppressive monarchial rule worldwide, eventually influencing events like the French Revolution of 1789 to1802.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the Freedom March on Washington in 1963.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the Freedom March on Washington in 1963. Bettmann/Getty Images

Though Jefferson left no personal record of it, many scholars believe he was motivated by the writings of the English philosopher John Locke. In his classic 1689 essay Second Treatise of Government, Locke contended that all individuals are born with certain “inalienable” rights—God-given natural rights that governments could take way or grant. Among these rights, wrote Locke, were “life, liberty, and property.” Locke believed that the most basic human law of nature is the preservation of mankind. To ensure the preservation of mankind, Locke reasoned that individuals should be free to make choices about how to conduct their own lives as long as their choices do not interfere with the liberty of others. Murders, for example, forfeit their right to life since they act outside of Locke’s concept of the law of reason. Locke, therefore, believed liberty should be far-reaching.

Locke believed that besides land and goods that could be sold, given away, or even confiscated by the government under certain circumstances, “property" referred to the ownership of one’s self, which included a right to personal well-being. Jefferson, however, chose the now-famous phrase, “pursuit of happiness,” to describe the freedom of opportunity as well as the duty to help those in want.

Locke went on to write that the purpose of government is to secure and ensure the God-given inalienable natural rights of the people. In return, wrote Locke, the people are obliged to obey the laws set down by their rulers. This sort of “moral contract,” however, would be voided if a government persecutes its people with "a long train of abuses" over an extended period. In such cases, Locke wrote, the people have both the right and duty to resist that government, alter or abolish it, and create a new political system.

By the time Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, he had witnessed how Locke’s philosophies had helped to fuel the overthrow of the rule of King James II of England in the bloodless Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The Constitution and Bill of Rights

With their independence from England secured, America’s Founders turned to create a form of government with enough power to act on a national level, but not so much power that it could ever threaten the individual rights of the people. The result, the Constitution of the United States of America, written in Philadelphia of 1787, remains the oldest national constitution in use today. The Constitution creates a system of federalism that defines the form, function, and powers of the principal organs of government, as well as the basic rights of citizens.

Taking effect on December 15, 1791, the first ten amendments to the Constitution—the Bill of Rights—protects the rights of all citizens, residents, and visitors on American soil by limiting the powers of the federal government of the United States. Created at the insistence of the Anti-Federalists, who feared an all-powerful national government, the Bill of Rights protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to keep and bear arms, the freedom of assembly, and the freedom to petition the government. It further prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, cruel and unusual punishment, forced self-incrimination, and the imposition of double jeopardy in the prosecution of criminal offenses. Perhaps most importantly, prohibits the government from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.

The most serious threat to the Bill of Rights’ universal protection of individual rights came in 1883 when the U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark decision in the case of Barron v. Baltimore ruled that protections of the Bill of Rights did not apply to the state governments. The Court reasoned that the framers of the Constitution had not intended for the Bill of Rights to extend to the actions of the states.

The case involved John Barron, the owner of a busy and profitable deep-water wharf in Maryland’s Baltimore Harbor. In 1831, the city of Baltimore undertook a series of street improvements that required diverting several small streams that emptied into Baltimore Harbor. The construction resulted in large quantities of dirt, sand, and sediment being swept downstream into the harbor, causing problems for wharf owners, including Barron, who depended on deep water to accommodate vessels. As the material accumulated, the water near Barron’s wharf decreased to a point that it became almost impossible for merchant ships to dock. Left nearly useless, the profitability of Barron’s wharf declined substantially. Barron sued the city of Baltimore seeking compensation for his financial losses. Barron claimed that the city’s activities had violated the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment—that is, the city’s development efforts effectively allowed it to take his property without just compensation. While Barron originally sued for $20,000, the county court awarded him only $4,500. When the Maryland Court of Appeals reversed that decision, leaving him with no compensation whatsoever, Barron appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the unanimous decision authored by Chief Justice John Marshall, the Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment did not apply to the states. The decision contrasted with several of the major decisions of the Marshall Court that had expanded the power of the national government.

In his opinion, Marshall wrote that while the decision was one of “great importance,” it was “not of much difficulty.” He went to explain that, “The provision in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, declaring that private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation, is intended solely as a limitation on the exercise of power by the government of the United States, and is not applicable to the legislation of the states.” The Barron decision left the state governments free to disregard the Bill of Rights when dealing with their citizens and proved to be a motivating factor in the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868. A key part of the Post-Civil War amendment ensured all rights and privileges of citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, guarantees all Americans their constitutional rights, and prohibits the states from passing laws limiting those rights.

Sources

  • “Rights or Individual Rights.” Annenberg Classroom, https://www.annenbergclassroom.org/glossary_term/rights-or-individual-rights/.
  • “The Constitution's Basic Principles: Individual Rights.” U.S. Congress: Constitution Annotated, https://constitution.congress.gov/browse/essay/intro_2_2_4/.
  • Locke, John. (1690). “Second Treatise of Government.” Project Gutenberg, 2017, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/7370/7370-h/7370-h.htm.
  • “The Constitution: Why a Constitution?” The White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/our-government/the-constitution/.
  • “The Bill of Rights: What Does it Say?” U.S. National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/bill-of-rights/what-does-it-say.
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Longley, Robert. "What Are Individual Rights? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/individual-rights-definition-and-examples-5115456. Longley, Robert. (2021, September 3). What Are Individual Rights? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/individual-rights-definition-and-examples-5115456 Longley, Robert. "What Are Individual Rights? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/individual-rights-definition-and-examples-5115456 (accessed November 29, 2021).