civil liberties

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Civil liberties are freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution (primarily from the First Amendment). They are natural rights which are inherent to each person. While they are commonly referred to as "rights," civil liberties actually operate as restraints on how the government can treat its citizens. As such, the First Amendment's language ("congress shall make no law") explicitly prohibits the government from infringing on liberties, such as the freedom of speech.

While certain rights can be considered both a civil right and a civil liberty, the distinction between the two lies within the source and target of the authority. 

  • Civil liberties are constitutionally protected freedoms.
  • Civil rights are claims built upon legislation

A violation of civil rights affords the injured party a right to legal action against the violator. For example, the freedom of religion is recognized as both a civil right and civil liberty; it is protected under the Constitution from government infringement (liberty) as well as under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from being the basis of discriminatory practices.

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]