Civil and Political Rights

Guide to Civil & Political Rights in the United States

What are “civil rights”?

When people talk about civil rights, individual rights, or political rights, this generally includes fundamental rights we have as individuals to participate in society as equals and with dignity. More specifically, it includes concepts such as freedom of expression, free exercise of religion, voting rights, rights against law enforcement overreach, “innocent until proven guilty,” rights against unfair discrimination, among others.

Many of these rights come from the “Bill of Rights” (first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution), other parts of the Constitution, as well as laws passed by Congress and the states (see additional California civil & political rights).

Do immigrants or non citizens have rights?

Yes, most civil rights apply to every individual in the country, whether they are here legally or not. But keep in mind that many of these rights do not apply in the same way to non-citizens. See our Guide to Laws about Immigration & Travel to the U.S.

Here are the various types of civil rights and what is protected:

1. Free Speech and Expression

Under the 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution, you have broad rights to speak freely, especially regarding politics. See our Guide to Free Speech for more.

2. Religious rights

Under the 1st amendment, you have the right to freely exercise your religion, the government may not force any religion upon you, and the government is limited in its ability to discriminate against any religions. This is known as a “wall of separation between church and state.”

3. Rights against law enforcement overreach

Under the 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, generally you have the right against the government performing unreasonable searches of you and unreasonable taking of your property. See Police Conduct for more.

4. Innocent until proven guilty”

What does “innocent until proven guilty” mean?

This is also known as the right to “due process of law” (sometimes just “due process”) meaning that, under the 5th amendment, the government may not take certain actions against you, such as keeping you in jail, until they prove in a fair and independent judicial proceeding that you have committed a crime.

To ensure that the process against you is fair, you also have the right to be provided a defense attorney free of charge (in certain circumstances)1Gideon case, right to a jury trial (6th amendment), and the right to not have to say things that may incriminate you (5th amendment).

For more, see our Guide to Rights for the Accused.

What can I do if someone unjustifiably calls the police on me but I didn’t do anything wrong?

If a private citizen calls the police on you, knowing that you did not commit any crimes, you may be able to successfully sue that person for “malicious prosecution.” This is also sometimes called “abuse of process” or “abuse of civil process” or “wrongful use of civil proceedings.”

5. No cruel and unusual punishment

Under the 8th amendment, you have the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

6. Citizenship

Who gets to be a citizen?

Under the 14th amendment, every person born on U.S. soil is a citizen of the United States, and others have the right to become citizens through a process known as “naturalization.”

Can the government strip citizenship from someone?

The government generally may not strip citizenship (aka “denaturalize”) from any person, except in very limited circumstances (including treason).2U.S. Constitution, 14th amendmentAfroyim v Rusk (1967); Immigration and Nationality Act Sec 349

Even lying on your citizenship application does not necessarily mean you can be stripped of citizenship, when you actually do qualify for citizenship.3Maslenjak v U.S.

7. Voting Rights

Who has the right to vote?

Every American citizen at least 18 years old and who has not been convicted of a felony (although some states allow felons to vote). See our Voting Rights Guide for more.

8. Equality & Rights against unfair discrimination

In general, individuals in the U.S. are protected from many forms of discrimination, on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and certain other characteristics. See below for some specifics. Many states go further and provide even stronger protections than the federal government. See Civil Rights in California.

Is racial discrimination illegal?

Unequal treatment of people of a certain race is illegal in many circumstances:

  • In general, the government may not discriminate on the basis of race.4U.S. Constitution, equal protection clause of 14th amendment, incorporated by Supreme Court into 5th amendment to apply to federal government
  • Employers may not take any discriminatory actions against employees or prospective employees on the basis of their race.5Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Restaurants, shops, etc. cannot refuse to serve people on the basis of their race6Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • Certain types of “affirmative action” in college admissions is constitutional7Abigail Fisher v Univ of Texas
  • Racial gerrymandering (drawing voter district lines on the basis of race) is unconstitutional8Shaw v Reno (1993)
  • The government may not round up and detain Americans of a certain race simply because we are at war with the country of their ancestry.9Trump v Hawaii (2018), overturning the Korematsu (1944) decision allowing the government’s internment of Japanese Americans during WWII

Is gender discrimination illegal?

Unequal treatment of women is illegal in certain circumstances:

  • In general, the government may not discriminate on the basis of gender or sex. This is based on the U.S. Constitution, particularly the equal protection clause of 14th amendment10incorporated by Supreme Court into 5th amendment to apply to federal government
  • Employers may not take any discriminatory actions against employees or prospective employees on the basis of their gender or sex.11Civil Rights Act of 1964

Recently a federal judge ruled that a military draft for only men violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution, as it is unfair discrimination towards men. The government is currently considering whether to now require women to register for the draft as well.

Is it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexuality, sexual orientation or gender identity (LGBT)?

Unequal treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or other sexualities is illegal in certain circumstances:

  • In general, the government may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.12U.S. Constitution, equal protection clause of 14th amendment, incorporated by Supreme Court into 5th amendment to apply to federal government
  • Same sex couples may not be denied the right to be married in any state in the U.S.13Obergefell v Hodges
  • Lesbian, gay, and bi people are allowed to serve openly in the military (as of 2011)14The prior policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” required gays to actively hide their sexuality
  • As of January 2019, transgender people are not allowed to serve openly in the military (with the exception of about 900 currently serving), but the court is currently considering whether to overturn this ban.

Is it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their religion?

The government is limited in its ability to discriminate on the basis of religion, under the 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Is it illegal to discriminate against someone because of a disability?

Individuals with a disability have various rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. See our Guide to Rights for People with Disabilities.

9. Reproductive Rights

Throughout the U.S., women have the right to an abortion, subject to certain limitations. See more at our Guide to Reproductive Rights.

10. Right to own guns for self-defense

Under the 2nd amendment, you have the right to own guns for self-defense purposes, subject to certain limitations. See more at our Guide to Weapons Law.

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