Bill of (Civil) Rights & other mistakes

Whooooaaa, camel. Notsafast.

Whooooaaa, camel. Notsafast.

Wait wait wait.

Yesterday, I heard a teenager say, My religion is my civil right! That’s true, yes? Well, no. Not exactly. I did some cursory research on how much the youth of America — indeed, all Americans — know about the paperwork that forms the raison d’état for our republic. The findings are depressing, long-standing and embarrassing (although to be fair, 1,000 people in a survey doesn’t strike me as a truly representative slice of America).

A good number of my middle and high school students cannot name the Vice President of the United States. Still more can’t tell me the three branches of government, or who was President before Barack Obama. Of course, this isn’t due to bad parenting or lack of intelligence or teachers abandoning good instruction. Rather, it’s a pervasive, nationwide complacency — apathy in epidemic proportions — with regard to government. This nonchalance has taken our youth hostage over the last three or so decades, and hasn’t let up in the slightest. I worry.

Therefore, with love for all and malice towards none, I give you something to share with the next person you find who either 1) misquotes the Constitution, its Bill of Rights, or the Declaration of Independence, or 2) mixes up the difference between a civil liberty and a civil right. Actually, it’s good for all of us as a refresher; I know it was for me.

The following is a translation of what happened in 1789, when Congress realized there’d better be some “oh, and by the ways” in the document in order to minimize abuses of power, and to ensure that each US citizen had a clear list of basic legal rights.

(RtB Edition)

  1. You can believe in whatever god you want, say basically anything you want, write whatever opinion you want, tell your government you’re mad at them anytime you want, and gather peacefully wherever you want (the five basic freedoms of religion, speech, the press, redress, and peaceful assembly).
  2. You have the right to own guns.
  3. If the Army wants to hole up in your house when there’s no war happening on US soil, you have the right to say no.
  4. Your home and your stuff can’t be searched or taken without good legal reason (search and seizure; probable cause).
  5. You can’t be tried twice for the same crime (double jeopardy), and if you’re accused of a capital crime, a Grand Jury of your peers will convene first, to see if there’s enough evidence against you to go to trial.
  6. If you do go to trial, it needs to happen as fast as possible, in the district where the crime was committed. You also have the right to acquire a lawyer, and to confront your accuser(s).
  7. You have the right to impanel a jury in a civil case (a case in which a plaintiff sues a defendant, usually for damages), as long as the amount in dispute exceeds $20.
  8. Outrageous bail amounts — like, say, $20 million — are forbidden. So is torture in prison (cruel and unusual punishment).
  9. The above is not a complete, final list of your rights.
  10. If numbers 1-8 fail to cover a certain issue, then the individual States get to make the call.

And that is the Bill of Rights:  a fancy name for the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Now, about these pesky definitions…

I guess it’s nit-picking, in a way. Guilty as charged, and it’s really not that huge of a deal, since the lines between the words have come to be quite blurred. But the above 10 items, while listed as rights, are in fact your civil liberties, or “freedoms.” Civil rights deal with the equal dispatch of those civil liberties within the framework of the law. offers this analogy:


[A]s an employee, you do not have the legal right to a promotion, mainly because getting a promotion is not a guaranteed “civil liberty.” But, as a female employee, you do have the legal right to be free from discrimination in being considered for that promotion. By choosing not to promote a female worker solely because of the employee’s gender, the employer has committed a civil rights violation and has engaged in unlawful employment discrimination based on sex or gender.


Then there’s the complex issue of granting civil rights under the law to people who really aren’t nice folks, according to “civilized society.” You know who I’m talking about: the pornographers, the flag burners, the America haters, murderers and rapists, etc. Like it or not, they have civil rights, too, even though their activities are abhorrent to a large section of our culture.

I for one am glad these laws exist. I would like to think that if I were ever upbraided legally for something I did or said according to my First Amendment beliefs, I would be relieved to have the law on my side.

The most cloudy and dangerous of all “rights” issues is when one liberty clashes with another, and further interpretation and arbitration are required. Enter the Supreme Court of the United States, whose job it is to come to a decision on the most sensitive and legally explosive cases of Constitutional law. The Pentagon Papers case comes to mind, when the freedom of government to keep military secrets clashed with the freedom of the press to report the secrets to the people. What a mess.

Speaking of mess, I’d better get up and get to cleaning around here. Busy week ahead before the busy week after that. Almost down to go-time!

8 thoughts on “Bill of (Civil) Rights & other mistakes

  1. Marshall

    I really enjoyed this post! It was very well said and to most people my age they don’t understand basic civil rights and liberties! Which is a very sad thing to say… but it’s true.

    1. Rat Fink Post author

      Thanks, Marshall! I’m glad you found it informative. And you’re right: people your age need to know more about what makes America America. The fact that the US Constitution has been altered only 27 times in the last 225 years says something about how painstakingly careful the framers were to get things right.

      From the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History:

      While the United States has been governed by a single framework of government for over two centuries, France, in contrast, has had 10 separate and distinct constitutional orders (including five republics, two empires, a monarchy, and two dictatorships). The country of El Salvador has had 36 constitutions since 1824.

      Says somethin’, doesn’t it? :-)

  2. Ross Bonander

    Great post. Although I would amend the first amendment to be as much about freedom from religion as it is freedom to practice it. As for the freedom of the press, nobody phrased it better than who else, Larry Flynt:

    “We pay a price for everything, and the price we pay for freedom is toleration. We have to tolerate the Larry Flynts of the world so we can be free. We have to tolerate other peoples’ ideas. Freedom of the press is not the freedom for your ideas but for the ideas that you hate the most.”

    1. Rat Fink Post author

      Good call — I should have put “or none at all” in parentheses. And the whole Hustler thing was big news back in the 80s…remember the Falwell lawsuit? Wow.

      1. Ross Bonander

        I do remember it, yes. Apparently they became buddies afterwards. Go figure.

        With regard to David’s comment, it really is a difficult thing to swallow sometimes, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like for his mother. The remarkable thing about the freedom of speech is that despite being a first amendment right, well into the 20th century people in America were imprisoned for twenty years or more for practicing freedom of speech. We think of Soviet Russia as a place where a negative comment about the ruling party earned you a lifetime Gulag stretch, but it happened in the US all the time. Eugene Debs is probably the most famous example, but thousands of people spoke out critically against the US government for instance and found themselves doing long prison terms. The way we all today understand the freedom of speech only truly developed after Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote his dissent in Abrams v. United States. Until then it just didn’t exist in the US the way we have it today.

        1. Rat Fink Post author

          I had only heard of Debs here and there, so I read a bit about him. So much for his 1st Amendment rights. What a thin line they drew between free speech and inciting insurrection.

  3. David

    Loved the post Ms Fink…very well done! You should write one of those books: Freedom, Liberty and Rights for Dummies!
    I really liked the response by Ross because it addresses what I think is the most misunderstood and misquoted. In 1968 the American Nazi Party held a rally in my little old conservative town, right on the steps of the University Memorial Chapel. My mother was 12 yr old girl that had escaped on the last train out of Germany before Hitler shut down and controlled all public transportation. Needless to say my Mother and most of my home town were up in arms over the rally happening in their town by Nazi’s. It was a tremendous lesson for me as a teenager on freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.

    1. Rat Fink Post author

      I had no idea you are first-generation American (at least on your mom’s side)! Wow, what a story she must have. I hope someone in your family wrote it all down; hers is a vanishing narrative — the immigrant story that has come to symbolize what this country’s supposed to be all about. I hope her family made it out as well.

      I can’t imagine how hurtful the Nazi rally was to her. I’m certain it was like celebrating their cruelty. But you’re right — it was another lesson about what can happen when two liberties collide.

      Remember the Skokie mess back in the 70s, when the Nazis wanted to demonstrate in the (largely Jewish) town? If I remember right, after the whole thing played out and the Supreme Court rendered a decision, they never even marched there, but went somewhere else.

      In the words of Rodney King……………………


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