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2.8: Rights Guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution

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    Figure 2.8.1: The National Archives and Records Administration was established in 1934 to house and maintain official records.

    The Bill of Rights: Pathway to Civil Liberties

    The foundation of civil liberties is the Bill of Rights, the ten amendments added to the Constitution in 1791 to restrict what the national government may do.

    The state conventions that ratified the Constitution obtained promises that the new Congress would consider adding a Bill of Rights. James Madison—the key figure in the Constitutional Convention and an exponent of the Constitution’s logic in the Federalist papers—was elected to the first House of Representatives. Keeping a campaign promise, he surveyed suggestions from state-ratifying conventions and zeroed in on those most often recommended. He wrote the amendments not just as goals to pursue but as commands telling the national government what it must do or what it cannot do. Congress passed twelve amendments, but the Bill of Rights shrank to ten when the first two (concerning congressional apportionment and pay) were not ratified by the necessary nine states.

    View the Bill of Rights online at

    The first eight amendments that were adopted address particular rights. The Ninth Amendment addresses the concern that listing some rights might undercut unspoken natural rights that preceded government. It states that the Bill of Rights does not “deny or disparage others retained by the people.” This allows for unnamed rights, such as the right to travel between states, to be recognized. We discussed the 10th Amendment in Chapter 3, as it has more to do with states’ rights than individual rights.

    The Rights

    Even before the addition of the Bill of Rights, the Constitution did not ignore civil liberties entirely. It states that Congress cannot restrict one’s right to request a writ of habeas corpus giving the reasons for one’s arrest. It bars Congress and the states from enacting bills of attainder (laws punishing a named person without trial) or ex post facto laws (laws retrospectively making actions illegal). It specifies that persons accused by the national government of a crime have a right to trial by jury in the state where the offense is alleged to have occurred and that national and state officials cannot be subjected to a “religious test,” such as swearing allegiance to a particular denomination.

    The Bill of Rights contains the bulk of civil liberties. Unlike the Constitution, containing an emphasis on powers and structures, the Bill of Rights speaks of “the people,” and it outlines the rights that are central to individual freedom. [1]

    Main Amendments Fall into Several categories of Protection

    1. Freedom of expression (I)

    2. The right to “keep and bear arms” (II)

    3. The protection of person and property (III, IV, V)

    4. The right not to be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” (V)

    5. The rights of the accused (V, VI, VII)

    6. Assurances that the punishment fits the crime (VIII)

    7. The right to privacy implicit in the Bill of Rights

    The Bill of Rights and the National Government

    Congress and the Executive Branch have relied on the Bill of Rights to craft public policies, often after public debate in newspapers. [2] Civil liberties expanded as federal activities grew.

    The First Century of Civil Liberties

    The first big dispute over civil liberties erupted when Congress passed the Sedition Act in 1798 amid tension with revolutionary France. The act made false and malicious criticisms of the government— including Federalist president John Adams and Congress—a crime. While printers could not be stopped from publishing because of freedom of the press, they could be punished after publication. The Adams administration and Federalist judges used the act to threaten with arrest and imprisonment many Republican editors who opposed them. Republicans argued that freedom of the press, before or after publication, was crucial to giving the people the information they required in a republic. The Sedition Act was a key issue in the 1800 presidential election, Republican Thomas Jefferson won over Adams; the act expired at the end of Adams’s term. [3]

    Debates over slavery also expanded civil liberties. By the mid-1830s, Northerners were publishing newspapers favoring slavery’s abolition. President Andrew Jackson proposed stopping the U.S. Post Office from mailing such “incendiary publications” to the South. Congress, claiming it had no power to restrain the press, rejected his idea. Southerners asked Northern state officials to suppress abolitionist newspapers, but they did not comply. [4]

    As the federal government’s power grew, so did concerns about civil liberties. When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, the government jailed many radicals and opponents of the war. Persecution of dissent caused Progressive reformers to found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. Today, the ACLU pursues civil liberties for both powerless and powerful litigants across the political spectrum. While it is often deemed a liberal group, it has defended reactionary organizations, such as the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan, and has joined powerful lobbies in opposing campaign finance reform as a restriction of speech.

    In later sections focus will be placed on the Fourteenth Amendment and its due process clause. It was added to the Constitution in 1868 and bars states from depriving persons of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law." It is the basis of civil rights. The Fourteenth Amendment is crucial to civil liberties, too. The Bill of Rights restricts only the national government; the Fourteenth Amendment allows the Supreme Court to extend the Bill of Rights to the states.

    The Supreme Court exercised its new power gradually. The Court followed selective incorporation. For the Bill of Rights to extend to the states, the justices had to find that the state law violated a principle of liberty and justice that is fundamental to the inalienable rights of a citizen. Table 4.1 shows the years when many protections of the Bill of Rights were applied by the Supreme Court to the states; some have never been extended at all.

    The Supreme Court's Extension of the Bill of Rights to the States

    Date Amendment Right Case
    1897 Fifth Just compensation for eminent domain Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad v. City of Chicago
    1925 First Freedom of speech Gitlow v. New York
    1931 First Freedom of the press Near v. Minnesota
    1932 Fifth Right to counsel Powell v. Alabama (capital cases)
    1937 First Freedom of assembly De Jonge v. Oregon
    1940 First Free exercise of religion Cantwell v. Connecticut
    1947 First Nonestablishment of religion Everson v. Board of Education
    1948 Sixth Right to public trial In Re Oliver
    1949 Fourth No unreasonable searches and seizures Wolf v. Colorado
    1958 First Freedom of association NAACP v. Alabama
    1961 Fourth Exclusionary rule excluding evidence obtained in violation of the amendment Mapp v. Ohio
    1962 Eighth No cruel and unusual punishment Robinson v. California
    1963 First Right to petition government NAACP v. Button
    1963 Fifth Right to counsel (felony cases) Gideon v. Wainwright
    1964 Fifth Immunity from self-incrimination Mallory v. Hogan
    1965 Sixth Right to confront witnesses Pointer v. Texas
    1965 Fifth, Ninth, and others Right to privacy Griswold v. Connecticut
    1966 Sixth Right to an impartial jury Parker v. Gladden
    1967 Sixth Right to a speedy trial Klopfer v. N. Carolina
    1969 Fifth Immunity from double jeopardy Benton v. Maryland
    1972 Sixth Right to counsel (all crimes involving jail terms) Argersinger v. Hamlin
    2010 Second Right to keep and bear arms McDonald v. Chicago

    RIghts Not Extended to the States

    Third No quartering of soldiers in private dwellings
    Fifth Right to grand jury indictment
    Seventh Right to jury trial in civil cases under common law
    Eighth No excessive bail
    Eighth No excessive fines

    Many landmark Supreme Court civil-liberties cases were brought by unpopular litigants: members of radical organizations, publishers of anti-Semitic periodicals or of erotica, religious adherents to small sects, atheists and agnostics, or indigent criminal defendants. This pattern promotes a media frame suggesting that civil liberties grow through the Supreme Court’s staunch protection of the lowliest citizen’s rights.

    The finest example is the saga of Clarence Gideon in the book Gideon’s Trumpet by Anthony Lewis, the Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times. The indigent Gideon was sentenced to prison, but protested the state’s failure to provide him with a lawyer. Gideon made a series of handwritten appeals.

    The Court heard his case under a special procedure designed for paupers. Championed by altruistic civil liberties experts, Gideon’s case established a constitutional right to have a lawyer provided, at the state’s expense, to all defendants accused of a felony. [5] Similar storylines often appear in news accounts of Supreme Court cases. For example, television journalists personalize these stories by interviewing the person who brought the suit and recounting the touching tale behind the case.[6] This mass-media frame of the lone individual appealing to the Supreme Court is only part of the story.

    Powerful interests also benefit from civil-liberties protections. Consider, for example, freedom of expression: Fat-cat campaign contributors rely on freedom of speech to protect their right to spend as much money as they want to win elections. Advertisers say that commercial speech should be granted the same protection as political speech. Huge media conglomerates rely on freedom of the press to become unregulated and more profitable. [7]

    Many officials have to interpret the guarantees of civil liberties when making decisions and formulating policy. They sometimes have a broader awareness of civil liberties than do the courts. For example, the Supreme Court found in 1969 that two Arizona newspapers violated antitrust laws by sharing a physical plant while maintaining separate editorial operations. Congress and the president responded by enacting the Newspaper Preservation Act, saying that freedom of the press justified exempting such newspapers from antitrust laws.

    Figure 2.8.2

    Study/Discussion Questions

    1. What is the Bill of Rights?

    2. What historical periods were central to the evolution of civil liberties protections?

    3. What is the relationship of the Fourteenth Amendment to civil liberties?

    4. How does the original text of the Constitution protect civil liberties? What kinds of rights does the Bill of Rights protect that the original body of the Constitution does not?

    5. Why might landmark civil-liberties cases tend to be brought by unpopular or disadvantaged groups? What are some of the ways in which powerful interests benefit from civil-liberties protections?

    6. Do you think the Bill of Rights does enough to protect civil liberties? In your opinion, are there any ways in which the Bill of Rights goes too far?

    [1] This section draws on Robert A. Goldwin, From Parchment to Power (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1997).
    [2] This theme is developed in Michael Kent Curtis, Free Speech, “The People’s Darling Privilege”: Struggles for Freedom of 
    Expression in American History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).
    [3] See James Morton Smith, Freedom’s Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties 
    (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1956). For how the reaction to the Sedition Act produced a broader understanding of 
    freedom of the press than the Bill of Rights intended, see Leonard W. Levy, Emergence of a Free Press 
    (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).
    [4] Michael Kent Curtis, Free Speech, “The People’s Darling Privilege”: Struggles for Freedom of Expression in American 
    History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), especially chaps. 6–8, quote at 189.
    [5] Anthony Lewis, Gideon’s Trumpet (New York: Vintage Books, 1964).
    [6] Richard Davis, Decisions and Images: The Supreme Court and the News Media(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1994).
    [7] Frederick Schauer, “The Political Incidence of the Free Speech Principle,” University of Colorado Law Review 64 (1993): 
     Pgs. 119-127.  Accessed Feb. 2, 2015.  Licensed under Creative Commons 3.0 BY-NC-SA by

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