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Civil rights are the freedoms and rights that a person may have as a member of a community, state, or nation. Civil rights include freedom of speech, of the press, and of religion. Among others are the right to own property and to receive fair and equal treatment from government, other persons, and private groups. Law protects a person s civil rights and custom, courts of law decide whether a person’s civil rights have been violated. The courts also determine the limits of civil rights, so that people do not use their freedoms to violate the rights of others. Courts of law decide whether a person’s civil rights have been violated. The courts also determine the limits of civil rights, so that people do not use their freedoms to violate the rights of others.
The United States Constitution describes the basic civil rights of American citizens. Each state constitution has a bill or declaration of rights. When Americans raise questions about the extent and limits of civil rights, they turn to the Supreme Court’s decisions for the answers. The court often defines the limits of a right by balancing the right of the individual against the rights of society in general. The First Amendment is the basis of the democratic process in the United States. The First Amendment forbids Congress to pass laws restricting freedom of speech, of the press, of peaceful assembly, or of petition. Many people consider freedom of speech the most important freedom and the foundation of all other freedoms. The First Amendment also forbids Congress to pass laws establishing a state religion or restricting religious freedom. The Supreme Court has ruled that the 14th Amendment makes the guarantees of the 1st Amendment apply to the state governments. Many parts of the Constitution, congressional and state laws, and court decisions require the government to treat individuals fairly. These requirements reflect a basic principle in the American legal system called due process. The 5th and 14th amendments forbid the government to deprive a person of life, liberty, or property “without due process of law.” Due process of law includes court procedures that protect individuals accused of wrongdoing. People accused of a crime must be informed of their constitutional rights and of the charges against them. Persons on trial may cross-examine their accusers and may force witnesses to testify.
The United States has many minority groups. These minorities include blacks, Jews, Asian Americans, European immigrants, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, homosexuals, and people with handicaps. Members of these groups often have not had an equal chance for economic, political, or social advancement. Members of some minorities have been denied the right to vote. Many persons have been discriminated against in housing, education, and employment, and have been denied equal access to restaurants, hotels, and other public accommodations and facilities. A main goal has been to end such discrimination and guarantee equal rights and opportunities for all people. Black Americans, who make up the largest minority group in the United States, have been denied their full civil rights more than any other minority group.
Black Americans made significant gains in their struggle for equal rights during Reconstruction, the 12-year period after the American Civil War. During Reconstruction, Congress passed several laws to protect blacks’ civil rights. The 13th Amend., adopted in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States. In 1868, the 14th Amendment made the former slaves citizens. It also provided that the states must grant all people within their jurisdiction “equal protection of the laws.” The 15th Amendment prohibited the states from denying people the right to vote because of their race. During the late 1870’s, white Americans increasingly disregarded the newly won rights of black Americans. The government itself contributed greatly to denying blacks their rights. In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled that congressional acts to prevent racial discrimination by private individuals were unconstitutional. In 1896, in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana law requiring separate but equal accommodations for blacks and whites in railroad cars. For over 50 years, many Southern states used the “separate but equal” rule established in this case to segregate the races in public schools, and in transportation, recreation, and such public establishments as hotels and restaurants. Many states also used literacy tests, poll taxes, and other means to deprive blacks of their voting rights. However, after the 1930 s, blacks began to receive fair hearings on civil
rights cases in the federal courts. The most important was Plessy vs. Ferguson, this case declared the segregation in public schools unconstitutional and later declared to have all schools desegregated. This decision broke down the separate but equal principle.
In 1957, Congress passed the first federal civil rights law since Reconstruction. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 set up the Commission on Civil Rights to investigate charges of denial of civil rights. It created the Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice to enforce federal civil rights laws and regulations. During the 1960’s, black Americans’ voting rights received increased protection. The 24th Amendment, adopted in 1964, barred poll taxes in federal elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests in many Southern states. In 1966, the Supreme Court prohibited poll taxes in state and local elections. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was one of the strongest civil rights bills in U.S. history. It also barred discrimination by employers and unions, and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce fair employment practices. Also in 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had the power to enforce housing-discrimination laws even in cases involving only private individuals.
Civil rights have long been protected in the constitutional democracies of Western Europe. These nations include France, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries. Many new nations of Africa and Asia have adopted constitutions that guarantee basic civil rights. Most nondemocratic governments claim to protect civil rights. China’s Constitution, for example, guarantees the right to vote and assures freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly, however, Chinese government controls the newspapers and other forms of communication.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. It states that all people are born free and are equal in dignity and rights. Many experts in international law believe that the declaration lacks legal authority, but most agree that it has high moral authority.
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