What’s the Difference Between Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

Learn the difference between Civil Liberties and Civil Rights, according to law experts.

Here are their insights:

Njeri Mathis Rutledge

Njeri Mathis Rutledge

Associate Judge, City of Houston | Former Prosecutor | Law Professor, South Texas College of Law Houston

Civil liberties value the diversity of ideas including unpopular ones

Although civil liberties and civil rights are often viewed as interchangeable, they are very different. Civil liberties stem from our constitution and the idea that there are some aspects of our lives that the government should not intrude into.

This includes the ideas listed in the Bill of Rights like freedom of speech, association, and religion.

True civil liberties activists prioritize those freedoms above all else regardless of the person or organization that is asserting its rights. In many ways, civil liberties truly value the diversity of ideas, including unpopular ones.

Anthony Griffin, a Black lawyer who represented the Ku Klux Klan, explained that civil liberties include protecting “those we hate, those who stand up on street corners and bother us in public.”

As a result, lawyers who may disagree with the message but who believe in civil liberties are prepared to advocate for individuals and groups who hold divisive or even offensive views. The focus is not on the message but on their fundamental right to express the message.

Civil rights are based on the idea of protecting vulnerable groups from discrimination

Imagine a white supremacist group that decides to harass an African American community. The African American community would be looking for help from civil rights groups.

Contrary to civil liberties, which frequently involves suing the government to ensure rights are not infringed upon, civil rights require government intervention to protect the rights of marginalized groups including:

  • Racial minorities
  • LGBTQ individuals
  • Women

The Bill of Rights that we base our civil liberties upon is in the Constitution; most of our civil rights have been enacted through legislation.

One prominent example is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII was enacted to combat discrimination in employment practices. As a result, refusing to hire someone because of their race could be actionable under the statute. Sometimes there is overlap between the fight for civil rights and civil liberties, and sometimes the ideas are in direct conflict.

The conflict

The exercise of one person’s civil liberties could be a form of discrimination against another person. For example, an individual may decide they want to attend an alt-right rally. Imagine at the rally that person is filmed making racist comments, but the rally is peaceful.

That person’s freedom to assemble and freedom of speech would protect her from being arrested even if she was doing or saying something the government did not approve of, as long as it wasn’t riotous speech.

If a co-worker recognized the protester and felt offended by those same views, he could report her and may even include it in a discrimination claim (though additional facts would be needed to prove discrimination). The protester would not be protected under the state’s at-will employment laws or code of conduct provisions established by her employer.

Our civil liberties should not be oppressed by the government, but individuals are not shielded from collateral consequences of their behavior.

Related views but different

Interestingly, both civil rights and civil liberties consider diversity and equality concepts but through a very different lens. For civil rights activists, valuing diversity is about using the law to protect vulnerable groups who have been discriminated against.

Equality for the civil rights activists would mean that all individuals are treated equally, irrespective of their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Civil libertarians value diversity of ideas.

All persons are already equal in the Constitution, so all persons should have the right to exercise their liberties generally, regardless of content or popularity. Equality for the civil libertarian is achieved when the individual rights of all are protected, even when it negatively impacts vulnerable groups.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated. — Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate from her Inauguration Poem, 2021

Andy M. Hale, ESQ

Andy Hale

Emmy Nominated Documentary Film Producer | Civil Rights and Commercial Litigation Attorney | Co-Founder, Hale & Monico

Two terms that are often used interchangeably are “civil rights” and “civil liberties.” However, the two terms actually have very different meanings and contexts.

Civil liberties are designed to limit government action in certain areas

Civil liberties derive from the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution) and the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The most common civil liberties are:

  • Freedom of speech (First Amendment)
  • Freedom of religion (First Amendment)
  • Freedom of the press (First Amendment)
  • Freedom of assembly (First Amendment)
  • Right to bear arms (Second Amendment)
  • Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures (Fourth Amendment)
  • Freedom from self-incrimination (Fifth Amendment)
  • Freedom from the deprivation of property without due process of law (Fifth Amendment)
  • Protection from double jeopardy (Fifth Amendment)
  • Right to a speedy trial (Sixth Amendment)
  • Right to legal counsel (Sixth Amendment)
  • Right to a jury trial (Seventh Amendment)
  • Freedom from excessive bail (Eighth Amendment)
  • Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment (Eighth Amendment)

Civil liberties have also been created by Supreme Court decisions that have interpreted the Bill of Rights broadly. An example is the right to privacy, which is alluded to in the Fourth Amendment.

Civil rights pertain to how an individual is treated by others

Civil rights, on the other hand, were created to require that the government act in a certain way to ensure equal treatment for all citizens. Civil rights pertain to how an individual is treated by others.

The most common sources of civil rights are:

  • The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965
  • The Age Discrimination Act of 1975
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act
  • The Fair Housing Act

Specifically, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Civil rights require that individuals be treated equally as to, among other things, employment, housing, access to public facilities, government services, and public education.

The Supreme Court, through court opinions, has a significant impact in interpreting the extent of an individual’s civil rights. Thus, the scope of civil rights protections to individuals continues to evolve.

Maurice Davis

Maurice Davis

Civil Rights Attorney, Davis Injury Lawyers, PLLC

The terms civil liberties and civil rights are often used interchangeably, even by attorneys and practitioners of law. However, as a civil rights attorney, it is important to me that people understand the nuanced distinction between civil liberties and civil rights.

Civil liberties are individual rights protected by law preventing unjust governmental or other interference

They are fundamental and basic rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Civil liberties include precedents set by courts throughout the United States as a judiciary that interprets the Bill of Rights and applies it to specific cases. In addition, civil liberties stemming from the Bill of Rights may arise from legislative bodies interpretation of the same.

They include freedom of speech, freedom of privacy, right to remain silent during an arrest, right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, right to a fair trial, and the right to vote.

An example of a civil liberties violation is if a person is arrested and not read their Miranda rights and forced to give the officers details about what led to their arrest and deny their right to remain silent.

Civil rights law prevents discrimination against people because of their protected characteristics

The laws that establish and govern civil rights have been established by the Federal government through case law that creates a precedent and by legislation.

Civil rights law prevents discrimination against people because of their protected characteristics. Protected characteristics include: race, color, sex, gender, national origin, religion, disability, and citizenship status.

If an individual is discriminated against because of a protected characteristic in education, employment, public facilities, or housing, it is a violation of their civil rights.

For example, if a hotel refuses a guest because they do not allow smoking, that is not discrimination because it is not a protected right. However, suppose a hotel refuses a person because he or she is Black. In that case, that is discrimination because race and color are both protected characteristics, and operators of lodging facilities are prohibited from discriminating based on race.

Civil liberties vs. civil rights

Summarily, civil liberties are fundamental freedoms, whereas civil rights are the basic rights to be free from discrimination based on a protected characteristic.

In general, it may be difficult for most people to distinguish between a civil right and a civil liberty. However, as civil rights practitioners, it is important to distinguish between the two so that we can be the best advocates for our clients.

Whether it is a civil rights violation or a violation of civil liberty, attorneys, judges, and legislators have tools through which to protect citizens’ fundamental rights and to prevent unjust and discriminatory conduct.

Robert C. Bird

Robert Bird

Professor of Business Law and Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics, University of Connecticut | President, Academy of Legal Studies in Business

Civil liberties are freedoms that citizens have against government actions

For example, Americans have the civil liberty to be free to practice a religion a person sees fit, or not practice it at all, free from unnecessary intrusion from the government. Another civil liberty is to be able to engage in free speech without fear of unreasonable state restrictions.

Free speech rights are also known as First Amendment rights because of the language in the constitution. The right to marry is also a civil liberty as well as the right to vote and the right to remain free from unreasonable searches of your home.

Civil rights are powers that citizens can exercise freely and without prohibition

Examples of civil rights are the right to privacy and the right to vote. One of the most influential acts of the twentieth century was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that citizens have the right to be free from unjust discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, and other criteria. Civil rights serve important purposes. For example, civil rights can protect a minority group from majority group power.

Civil rights are often associated with women, Latinx, and African American groups. Individuals who believe that their civil rights have been infringed can seek redress in a court of law.

Dr. Audrey D. Jordan, Ph.D.

Audrey Jordan

Professor of Civic Engagement, Claremont Lincoln University

According to USHistory.org: “Civil liberties are protections against government actions. For example, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees citizens the right to practice whatever religion they please. Civil rights, in contrast, refer to positive actions of government should take to create equal conditions for all Americans.”

Even though the two terms are used interchangeably, the difference between them is significant.

Essentially, civil liberties refer to when you hear people say, “I have a right to do,” because they feel threatened by the government.

Meanwhile, civil rights refer to when you see people protesting because they feel the government needs to step up to ensure them.

What makes it all so complex and a constantly occurring challenge for our judicial system is that one person’s or group’s liberties can—and often do—subvert another person’s or group’s rights. For example, the protection of the liberty or right to bear arms by some threatens the right of others to have life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (and safety).

The past few weeks’ events help clarify that this cyclical struggle between civil liberties of some and civil rights of the many is the ongoing American experiment to achieve liberty and justice for all.

The original U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence were written by and for white male property-holders. They did not really mean all—they meant themselves.

The American story is, in essence, the struggle between broadening the protections of civil liberties and civil rights to all our citizens and the persistent—and often violent—pushback to prevent it.

On Jan. 6, 2021, we saw an insurrection in the national capital building that threatened to end this righteous struggle. Let’s hope that today with the inauguration of our new president and vice president, we can all work together to ensure that, as President Joe Biden proclaimed, “Democracy has prevailed.”

Chris Sharpe

Chris Sharpe

Owner, Sharpe Law Firm, PLLC

Civil Liberties are what you can do that is also protected by the government

They are freedoms to do something, to exercise a right. A liberty like the right to vote, the right to a fair trial, the right to government services, and the right to a public education.

Civil Rights are about how you are treated by organizations and other people

They are typically freedom from something like discrimination. Examples are being able to sit in any seat available on a bus, rather than having to sit in the back because of your skin color, race, religion, appearance, or anything else.

When people talk about Civil Rights, they are usually referring to Equal Rights. Equal treatment and opportunity for all people.


Liberties are what you can do, while rights are safety measures against what is done to you.

  • Liberty = freedom to do
  • Right = protection from

Dustyn Coontz

Dustyn Coontz

Criminal Defense and Civil Rights Attorney | Founder, Coontz Law

My short answer to the question is simply this: There are none. This is mostly an opinion, but there is the law to back me up too.

This country was founded on the ideals of liberty. It’s the most unifying thing we all collectively agree on, though different parts of the political spectrum view what constitutes liberty very differently.

But whether it’s access to guns or access to abortion, we all believe in liberty and civil liberties to some extent. We all believe in some way that the Government ought to mind its damn business, thank you very much.

In my view, liberty is so deeply ingrained into who we are as a country that our liberties are the same thing as our rights. They are indistinguishable. But again, this is not entirely just my opinion. The Fourteenth Amendment protects liberty.

The Fourteenth Amendment is probably the most important, expansive provision of the Constitution because that amendment is what binds state governments to the constitution, not just state governments.

So there is plenty of case law from the US Supreme Court on down that protects our liberty interests. A cognizable liberty interest is the same thing as a right because it is protected by the Constitution.

Check out this site for a little history on SCOTUS’s decisions when it comes to liberty interests.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do civil liberties and civil rights intersect with technology and digital privacy?

Civil liberties and civil rights intersect with technology and digital privacy in a number of ways. For example, the use of facial recognition technologies and other forms of surveillance by law enforcement can raise questions about individuals’ rights to privacy and civil liberties.

Similarly, the collection and use of personal data by technology companies can raise questions about the extent to which individuals have control over their own data.

There are also concerns about the impact of technology on civil liberties, particularly with regard to issues of discrimination and bias.

For example, algorithms used in hiring or lending decisions may perpetuate existing biases and discriminate against certain groups, even if this isn’t intended.

It’s important to establish legal protections for digital privacy and hold technology companies and government agencies accountable for their actions to address these issues.

This can include regulations that limit the use of facial recognition technologies and laws that protect people from discrimination in hiring and lending decisions.

It’s also important to educate the public and engage in dialog about these issues to ensure that people are informed and empowered to make decisions about their digital privacy and advocate for policies protecting their civil liberties and civil rights.

What can we do to promote greater understanding and respect for civil liberties and civil rights in our communities?

There are several things that individuals can do to promote understanding and respect for civil liberties and civil rights in their communities.

One important step is to engage in dialog with others who may have different views on these issues. By listening to others and sharing our own experiences and perspectives, we can develop greater understanding and empathy for the challenges people face in different communities.

Another important step is to support organizations and advocacy groups that work for civil rights. This includes organizations that provide legal support to people who have been discriminated against or had their rights violated, as well as organizations that advocate and are politically active on these issues.

Finally, it’s important to be an informed and engaged citizen and use our voices to support policies and candidates prioritizing protecting civil rights and civil liberties.

By working with others in our communities, we can advocate for a more just society that values the dignity and worth of every individual.

How can individuals protect their civil liberties and rights?

There are several steps that individuals can take to protect their civil liberties and rights. One important step is to stay informed about current events and policy debates that affect these issues.

By staying informed, individuals can make informed decisions and take action when necessary to protect their rights.

Another important step is to participate in advocacy efforts and political activism. This includes attending protests and rallies, contacting elected officials, and supporting organizations protecting civil liberties and civil rights.

By working together with others who share similar values and concerns, each individual can make a greater impact and help bring about positive change.

Finally, each individual can take steps to protect their own privacy and personal information, such as using secure passwords, being careful when sharing personal information online, and advocating for stronger privacy laws and protections.

In this way, individuals can help protect their liberties and civil rights and ensure they can live free from government interference and discrimination.

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