Civil Rights

civil rights: an overview

A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. Examples of civil rights are freedom of speech, press, and assembly; the right to vote; freedom from involuntary servitude; and the right to equality in public places. Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class. Various jurisdictions have enacted statutes to prevent discrimination based on a person's race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and in some instances sexual orientation.

The most important expansions of civil rights in the United States occurred as a result of the enactment of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery throughout the United States. See U.S. Const. amend. XIII. In response to the Thirteenth Amendment, various states enacted "black codes" that were intended to limit the civil rights of the newly free slaves. In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment countered these "black codes" by stating that no state "shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of the citizens of the United States... [or] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, [or] deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." See U.S. Const. amend. XIV. Section Five of the Fourteenth Amendment gave Congress the power by section five of the Fourteenth Amendment to pass any laws needed to enforce the Amendment.

During the reconstruction era that followed, Congress enacted numerous civil rights statutes. Many of these are still in force today and protect individuals from discrimination and from the deprivation of their civil rights. Section 1981 of Title 42 (Equal Rights Under the Law) protects individuals from discrimination based on race in making and enforcing contracts, participating in lawsuits, and giving evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Other statutes, derived from acts of the reconstruction era, that protect against discrimination include: Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights (See 42 U.S.C. § 1983); Conspiracies to Interfere With Civil Rights (See 42 U.S.C. § 1985); Conspiracy Against Rights of Citizens (See 18 U.S.C. § 241); Deprivation of Rights Under Color of Law, (See 18 U.S.C. § 242); The Jurisdictional Statue for Civil Rights Cases (See 28 U.S.C. § 1443); and Peonage Abolished (See 42 U.S.C. § 1994).

The most prominent civil rights legislation since reconstruction is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Decisions of the Supreme Court at the time limited Congressional enforcement of the 14th Amendment to state, rather than individual, action. (Since 1964 the Supreme Court has expanded the reach of the 14th Amendment in some situations to individuals discriminating on their own). Therefore, in order to reach the actions of individuals, Congress, using its power to regulate interstate commerce, enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 under Title 42, Chapter 21 of the United States Code. Discrimination based on "race, color, religion, or national origin" in public establishments that have a connection to interstate commerce or are supported by the state is prohibited. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000a. Public establishments include places of public accommodation (e.g., hotels, motels, and trailer parks), restaurants, gas stations, bars, taverns, and places of entertainment in general. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and subsequent legislation also declared a strong legislative policy against discrimination in public schools and colleges which aided in desegregation. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in federally funded programs. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination where the employer is engaged in interstate commerce. Congress has passed numerous other laws dealing with employment discrimination. See Employment Discrimination.

The judiciary, most notably the Supreme Court, plays a crucial role in interpreting the extent of the civil rights, as a single Supreme Court ruling can alter the recognition of a right throughout the nation. Supreme Court decisions can also affect the manner in which Congress enacts civil rights legislation, an occurence that occurred with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal courts have been crucial in mandating and supervising school desegregation programs and other programs established to rectify state or local discrimination.

In addition to federal guarantees, state constitutions, statutes and municipal ordinances provide further protection of civil rights. See, e.g., New York's Civil Rights Law.

Numerous international agreements and declarations recognize human rights.  The United States has signed some of these agreements, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

menu of sources

Federal Material

U.S. Constitution and Federal Statutes

Federal Agency Regulations

Federal Judicial Decisions

state material

State Statutes

State Judicial Decisions

International Material

Conventions and Treaties

Other References

Key Internet Sources

Useful Offnet (or Subscription - $) Sources

other topics