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What is the Difference Between Civil Rights and Civil Liberties?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

The difference between civil rights and civil liberties is fairly well defined and distinct based on how each term is used. Civil rights are rights granted and protected by a government for its people with regard to ensuring fairness and preventing discrimination with regard to a particular attribute of its people, such as gender or age. On the other hand, civil liberties are basic rights typically granted to all people in a country by the constitution or other founding document of that country and are extended to all citizens without further specificity, such as freedom of speech or religion in the US.

While the terms can seem somewhat interchangeable or similar in nature, there are clear differences between each term. They are often used together when discussing a particularly complicated issue. Civil rights and civil liberties are both legal issues and can both require the efforts of courts, legislators, and attorneys to define and protect these freedoms. In general, they can be more easily distinguished by considering that civil rights are usually fought for by various groups within a populace, while civil liberties pertain to the actual rights people are fighting to secure.

In the US, many civil liberties  are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
In the US, many civil liberties are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

Civil rights are typically those rights sought by individuals in a country or community who are being treated unfairly in some particular way. In US history, for example, there are numerous examples of struggles by various groups to ensure equal treatment and protection under the law in order to ensure all people had their civil rights. Various ethnic minorities, women, and people with disabilities have all fought to ensure equal treatment by employers, the government, and educational institutions. While civil rights and civil liberties are somewhat similar, if a woman is paid less than a man simply because of her gender or someone is passed over for promotion due to his ethnicity, then that would be a civil rights issue.

Freedom of religion is an example of a civil liberty.
Freedom of religion is an example of a civil liberty.

Where the two often differ is in the way these various freedoms are expressed. Civil rights frequently pertain to how people are treated by others, while civil liberties refer to the actual freedoms that people wish to enjoy. In the US, for example, freedom of expression, the right to vote, and the right to a fair and speedy trial are all considered civil liberties. When someone of a particular gender or ethnicity has had to fight for one of these civil liberties, such as the right to vote, then it has been considered a civil rights matter.

Discussion Comments


This is so convoluted. We have a Bill of Rights that is now referred to as liberties. We call out liberty as being one of the people's rights in the Declaration of Independence, where we also say that our rights are inalienable and a self-evident truth, except that now they are granted by government? And the only right in the original Constitution (pre-Amendments) was the right to have a patent.

Who's steering this ship anyway? A lawyer? Alter or abolish.


Oasis11- If a citizen is charged with a crime they have a civil liberation right not to speak to the police until they have spoken to an attorney.

This is also caused a lot of controversy with respect to the 911 conspirators and other terrorist held in Guantanamo Bay Cuba.

The first of these trials afforded the terrorist the same civil liberties that are given only to American citizens.

Since these are considered enemy combatants they do not have these civil liberties that Eric Holder has offered them.

This has angered the American public and has put our country at risk. As a result, the first trail resulted in only one guilty verdict, while the remaining counts were not guilty.

This is because a lot of real evidence was not allowed to be presented to the jury because this terrorist was given the same rights as a citizen and received a regular trial.

Prisoners of war and enemy combatants are supposed to receive a military tribunal that is offshore and is usually held in Cuba. These people should not have civil liberties because they are not citizens of the United States.


Cafe41-I think that when people talk about civil liberties and civil rights they are talking about human rights that everyone has because of our constitution and civil rights that we have as a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Civil liberties refer to freedom of speech and religion and in the United States it also includes the use of counsel when charged with a crime.


Mutsy- The bus boycott energized the black community to fight for a just caused and a charismatic leader named Martin Luther King not only led the successful boycott that changed this law in favor of African Americans but led him to personify the civil rights movement.

It is because of brave people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King that challenged the inequality of the status quo with these civil rights violations that changed the course of the civil rights movement forever.

As a result Civil rights laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation and linked this law to the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

In addition, equal voting rights were enforced for African Americans which were linked to the 15 amendment's voter rights protections.

This landmark legislation can really be summed up with the famous words of Martin Luther King, in which he said that people should be judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin.

His I have a dream speech has really influenced a lot of minorities to become a civil rights attorney and defend the rights of others. The lawyers committee for civil rights does just that.


Civil rights vs. civil liberties really became a distinction with the civil rights movements. Up until the civil rights movement we had “Separate but equal” schools in which black children had to go to schools with only black children.

Segregation also provided inequality for African Americans with respect to dining at restaurants, the use of restrooms and their placement on a bus for example.

Rosa Parks really developed the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Her refusal to do this led to a full blown bus boycott in Selma Alabama.

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    • In the US, many civil liberties  are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
      By: TeX HeX
      In the US, many civil liberties are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.
    • Freedom of religion is an example of a civil liberty.
      By: oconnelll
      Freedom of religion is an example of a civil liberty.
    • A civil rights issue may include the denial of educational opportunities to certain people based on ethnicity.
      By: ryflip
      A civil rights issue may include the denial of educational opportunities to certain people based on ethnicity.