What Are Your Rights?

As the debate about healthcare flares up, I keep hearing people talking about rights. Human rights, equal rights, we have rights to do things.  These words and meanings get blurry in the world of debate, but they aren’t really interchangeable sorts of “rights.”

I’m going to look at 3 types of rights. First, the dictionary definitions:


  • Constitutional Rights – A liberty or right whose protection from governmental interference is guaranteed by a constitution
  • Civil Rights – the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality
  • Human Rights – the rights that is believed to belong justifiably to every person

I’d like to also start with the definition of “right” itself – since the synonyms (entitlement? privilege? freedom?) also get bandied about a lot lately.


Constitutional Rights

Let’s start with the easiest one. Constitutional rights are those that are protected from governmental interference. That the government can’t interfere with those rights is guaranteed and written out in the constitution.

In the United States of America, that’s called the “Bill of Rights”.  It’s often summed up with the line from the US Declaration of Independence as “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”.

If you want to read the official Bill of Rights, here is a good link.

Here we go:

Amendment 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Our “first amendment rights” guarantee that we are protected from governmental interference in

  • starting a religion
  • practicing a religion
  • saying what we want
  • printing and reporting the news
  • peaceful assembly
  • petitioning the government if we feel we’ve been done wrong.

This doesn’t mean “separation of church and state” it doesn’t mean that saying what we want won’t have social or economic consequences.  It does say that the current interference with the press is verging on unconstitutional, and that the bills against peaceful protest that are floating around are also unconstitutional. Oh, and the Muslim ban? If it’s about practicing a religion, we’re protected against governmental interference right there – which is why it continues to get stopped by the Justice system.

Okey dokey? All clear?

Amendment 2: A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Ah, the lovely second amendment that had no idea automatic assault rifles would ever be a thing. Okay, I’m a gun owner, I’m not going to say much about the right to bear arms, or arm bears.  The government has no right to interfere with that. I’m okay there.

But the thing I would like to point out is part one of this bad boy. “A well-regulated  militia, being necessary to the security of a free state” is actually saying that we, the citizens have the right to use those guns to revolt against the government if necessary. 

*sips tea*

 Amendment 3: No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Okay, so if we’re during peace time, the Army can’t move into our private homes or commandeer our bunkers without our consent.

Amendment 4: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This is the search and seizure clause – saying that we have to have just cause to do something like say… make an incoming traveler unlock their personal phone?

Amendment 5: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

“I plea the fifth!” and the Miranda rights – where the police have to say that “what you say can and will be used against you” – that’s one tiny snippet of the above: nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.

But that sucker’s a lot longer than just not verbally incriminating oneself. It’s actually a lot of the rules for the criminal justice system. This is where the “due process” comes in, as well as a the right to be tried by jury.

Amendment 6: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

The right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, and the right to a lawyer. All of this is pretty familiar stuff… right?

Amendment 7: In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

In property disputes exceeding $20, we can take someone to court. Maybe that should be adjusted for inflation.

Amendment 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted

Define “excessive” in terms of bail and fines? Anyone? Beuller?   Yeah, all of this gets muddy doesn’t it?

Amendment 9: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

By listing out these rights, we’re not saying they are the only ones you get. Just the official ones. We’re not denying that this is an incomplete list.

Finally, the last official entry in the bill of rights:

Amendment 10: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

These rights are a protection against governmental interference. Not a granting of much else.

The Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the constitution. There are 27 in total.

  • The thirteenth abolished slavery.
  • The fourteenth defines citizenship.
  • The fifteenth allowed former slaves the right to vote
  • The eighteenth was the prohibition of alcohol – which was repealed in 1933
  • The nineteenth gave women the right to vote.
  • The twenty-sixth set the voting age at eighteen years old.

You know what’s missing on that list? Civil Rights. Yep. that amendment never passed into Constitutional Law. Which means that the government never promised to stay out of people’s business on the basis of gender, race, age, or disability.

Civil Rights

So, the two terms that are basically defined in the same way are “civil rights” and “equal rights.” Generally speaking, civil rights is usually what’s used to refer either to legal process, or to the protests and movements in the 1960s to end Jim Crow laws.  “Equal rights” is the more common term these days.

The definition of Civil (or Equal) rights are the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality.

Civil rights are muddier. They are less clearly defined, and they are not Constitutionally protected from governmental interference.

Many people I know are for smaller government. Since constitutional rights mean freedom from governmental interference, I’m going to agree.  Here is an incomplete list of rights that people would like to have in terms of political and social freedom from governmental interference:

  • Many women would like lawmakers to not interfere with their birth control and healthcare decisions. From a rights perspective, this doesn’t mean the Federal government has to foot the bill for abortions or birth control – just stop interfering.
  • Transgender people would like to go to the bathroom where they feel the most comfortable. Again, from a rights perspective, this means that the government just needs to stop worrying about where people pee.
  • Black people would like to have their fourth through sixth amendment rights exercised instead of being killed on sight by police. The definition of “excessive in number eight probably needs a really careful look, too.
  • Muslim people would like to not be interfered with the practice of their religion by laws that require hijabs be removed for ID photos, by executive orders that ban them from entering the country.
  • Up until 2016, gay and lesbian people just wanted the government to stop telling them whether or not they could get married. Some states still make it impossible for them to adopt. Why are these governments even bothering with people’s private lives?

The  government sure does like to get up in the business of certain people, and leaves others well enough alone. (That is what many people refer to as a privilege.)

But this rabbit hole goes even deeper.

Human Rights

Where the debate is happening right now is actually around the question of human rights.

Human rights are the rights that are believed to belong justifiably to every person.

Some people go back to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for this one. Which makes sense.  Life.

What are the rights that we have as human beings to live?  I look at the survivalist rules for this one. I need air, water, food, and shelter to live. I also need to be free of injury and able to maintain my body temperature.   So here are some questions that I’ll ask about that?

  • is breathable air a human right?
  • is drinkable water a human right?
  • is food a human right?
  • is shelter a human right?
  • is healthcare a human right?

All of these things are necessary for my survival as a human being. Is it my right?

These are the questions people are asking about the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan or about the Standing Rock water protectors.  About the proposed bill to disband the EPA, and the laws that have been repealed allowing businesses to contaminate water tables without repercussion.

I have to go back up to the top of this post. Is it a federally-protected right?  Nope.

Oh, but are they Internationally -protected rights? Hmm, let’s see what the UN has to say about Human Rights.  “The right to life” is an internationally agreed-upon human right.

Tricky, tricky, tricky.  This goes even further back to the question I asked months ago – What is the role of the government?

In my opinion, it’s not the government’s role to provide us our rights, but it is the government’s job to avoid interfering with our human rights.

In reality, this is going to come down to a legal battle between human rights and the rights of corporations. Corporations don’t need to breathe or drink water to survive. Oil companies don’t need clean water or active ecosystems in the Gulf.  Car companies don’t really need to breathe the fumes their cars emit.   But people do. And people worldwide do.


3 thoughts on “What Are Your Rights?

  1. Pingback: Having Time | Tonya Cannariato

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