Civil Rights vs. Civil Liberties

  • October 18, 2013

Photo by Theresa Thompson  

Since the Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties (CRCL) is committed to promoting discourse on both civil rights and civil liberties, it is helpful to think about the difference between the two terms. What is the difference between "civil rights" and "civil liberties"? Is there even a difference?

The terms are often used synonymously. However, a distinction does exist.

According to some scholars, civil rights are legal actions that the government takes to create equal conditions for all people. For example, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizenship rights and equal protection under law. Therefore, all U.S. citizens who qualify to vote have the right to do so and that right is enforceable by government intervention. Other examples of civil rights include the right to be free from employment discrimination based on race, gender, age, or disability, or equal access to health care and social services.

Civil liberties, on the other hand, refer to protections against government actions. For example, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees U.S. citizens the freedom of religion. By law, the government is prohibited from interfering in our individual choice of religion and worship. We have "liberty" from government action or restraint.

Of course, this is only one conceptualization of the terms. Please feel free to share your thoughts and own interpretation by commenting below.

Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, American Government (last visited Oct. 18, 2013).

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