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Civil Rights vs Civil Liberties: What is the Difference?

February 14, 2023


Civil Rights vs. Civil Liberties: What is the Difference? 

In the United States of America, we have certain civil rights and civil liberties. It’s what makes this country thrive. The two are not the same, though they both refer to protections established by law. The difference is really this: one requires the government to do certain things while the other limits the government from certain actions. Sometimes, civil rights and liberties are at odds with each other – especially now as this country is more divided than ever, and so though fundamentally civil rights and liberties are a part of the fabric that makes this country, the weave of the fabric changes from time to time.

Understanding your civil rights and civil liberties is important because they have a deep impact on your quality of life. A violation can get you arrested unlawfully. A violation could result in the loss of your job. These are life-changing events that can affect not just you but your family and your community. So, now is the time to know what your civil rights and liberties are, know their differences so you know what you are dealing with, and take action to maintain them or counter any violation of them.

What’s the Difference between Civil Rights & Civil Liberties?

Civil liberties are often thought of as civil rights, but they are really a limit on the government’s power and restrictions on how federal and state governments can act. Civil liberties are freedoms and guarantees that federal and state governments commit to not amend, remove, or withhold from citizens or anyone else within their jurisdiction without due process. When the framers of the U.S. Constitution added civil liberties to it, they saw these as inherent natural rights. As such, these are not rights that we are “given” but that we are born with, and governments cannot be allowed to violate these rights on a whim but must go through a process.

Civil liberties include:

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of assembly
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom of religion
  • Right to privacy
  • Right to marry (including same-sex marriages)
  • Right to vote
  • Right to due process
  • Right to own property
  • Right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures
  • Right to remain silent
  • Right to a fair trial

Civil rights, on the other hand, are protections created to ensure everyone can enjoy the same liberties, freedoms, and opportunities that everyone else enjoys. Civil rights require federal and state governments to guarantee equal treatment under the law, and this basically means preventing discrimination in its many forms through positive action. Civil rights are typically created after discrimination occurs. For example, African Americans were discriminated against in employment and public places, and laws were created to address and prevent discrimination based on race.

Civil rights include freedom discrimination based on race, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender expression, religion, nationality in things like:

  • Employment
  • Housing
  • Public facilities
  • Government services
  • Public education

To better understand what civil liberties and civil rights are and what distinguishes them, let’s look at where they originated, the effects they have on the government, and the effects they have on you.


Civil liberties are derived primarily from the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment. The Bill of Rights are the first ten amendments added in 1791, and these refer to your First Amendment rights and your rights regarding crime and due process. The 14th Amendment limits state governments from violating your rights and liberties. 

Civil rights are primarily derived from federal laws, like the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the American Disabilities Act of 1990. As above mentioned, civil rights are generally a creation of the government to address and counter discriminatory behavior that denies all people equal treatment under the law. 

Courts have played a significant role in civil liberties and civil rights. Though these liberties and rights do not originate in the court system, the meaning and extent of the right are defined and shaped by the courts. 

Effect on Government

The effect of civil liberties and civil rights on the government really comes down to this: negative versus positive action. Civil liberties require the government to refrain from certain actions without due process while civil rights require the government to do something to protect people. You could look at it this way, too: civil liberties are protections from the government while civil rights are protections by the government.

As for civil liberties, the government must refrain from violating your inalienable rights. In the real world, this means you have the right to voice your opinion and the government cannot prevent you from doing so by arresting you. You have the right to privacy, and the government cannot invade it. You have the right to a fair trial and to confront your accuser if criminal allegations are charged against you. 

Of course, all these and other civil liberties are not unlimited – there are limits (though nuanced) to each civil liberty. Your right to free speech does not mean you can break into a senator’s office to tell them your view on something. Your right to privacy ends when a police officer has a lawful warrant to search your home – but even then, the police only have the right to search your home as much as the warrant allows. 

As for civil rights, the government must protect you against discrimination in all government and public areas of life, from work to housing to healthcare to education. In the real world, this means an employer cannot terminate your position once it finds out you are pregnant. Property management cannot deny your rental application because you are black or brown. A school cannot deny you access because you have a disability. The government can impose fines, injunctions, and other measures to ensure civil rights are upheld.

But like civil liberties, there is only so far the government can go, and oftentimes this limit may be because of another civil liberty or right. Take religion, for example. Private clubs affiliated with a religion and not open to the public may discriminate based on religion. A legal conversation still exists and will be up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court again about religious rights versus LGBTQ+ rights. 

As you see, the effect civil liberties and civil rights have on the government are extensive and require both inaction and action. 

Effect on You

The most important difference between civil liberties and civil rights are their impact on you and, by extension, your family and community. 

Civil liberties allow you to enjoy the same rights and liberties without the threat of government interference. Civil liberties, in other words, means you possess innate rights by virtue of being a human and being in this country. 

Civil rights allow you equal treatment under the law, so if you are not a fully able, property-owning, white male, you still get to enjoy rights and freedoms. Your race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sex orientation, and more do not (or should not) prevent you from finding a good job, buying a home, voting for your representatives, building a family, and more. In other words, civil rights mean that even if you are different in some way as opposed to who “founded” this country and its constitution, you cannot be discriminated against based on that difference (as recognized by law and/or the courts). 

What Do Civil Liberties and Civil Rights Have in Common?

Civil liberties and civil rights have many things in common, the fundamentals of which are the protection of your rights. But there’s another common feature, and it’s this: violations of a liberty or right are actionable.

If your civil liberties are violated, you can take action. If your civil rights are violated, you can take action. 

For example, the Fourth Amendment bars the government from unreasonable search and seizure of you or your private property – this is a civil liberty. If a police officer knocks on your door and demands entry, you have the right to deny them entry. The exception here is if they have a lawfully obtained warrant. If the police force their way into your home without a valid warrant, your civil liberties have been violated. You can sue for police misconduct if any property damage or bodily harm resulted. Also, if you are arrested, whatever was taken from your home unlawfully can be excluded as evidence because of this violation. 

As another example, sexual harassment is unlawful both federally and state-wide. An employee who is sexually harassed by, for instance, their boss can and should report it. When the employer fails to address the sexual harassment and, on the contrary, terminates the victim of sexual harassment, the victim can report it to the EEOC and file a claim. Grounds for a lawsuit include sexual harassment and wrongful termination as retaliation.  

Final Thoughts from a Civil Rights Law Firm in California

You have certain inalienable rights in this country, and you have certain protections based on certain characteristics. These things are not simply moral but legal. When there’s a violation of your rights, our civil rights attorneys at Burris Nisenbaum Curry & Lacy take action. We are committed to ensuring your rights under the U.S. Constitution, federal law, and state law are upheld, and we will persevere to make sure justice is rendered when violations occur. Contact us at 866-570-1366 to learn more. 

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