Civil rights are enforceable rights, protections, and liberties granted to individuals that give rise to legal action if another person interferes with them and causes an injury, either tangible or intangible. In the United States, they are designed to ensure people are treated equally and to guard against overly intrusive actions by the government.
American civil rights include freedom of speech and assembly, equality in public places, the right to vote, the right to privacy, the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right against involuntary servitude. Many of these civil rights, such as freedom of speech, are grounded in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution.
However, other civil rights, particularly in the context of education, employment, and housing, have been addressed in greater detail by federal or state statutes. These statutes typically outline the scope of the right, provide specific penalties and remedies against interference with the right, and create an agency or office that will enforce the right.
Federal law preempts state and local laws, but state and local laws can provide greater civil rights protections than federal law. In other words, federal law provides a minimum level of civil rights protections, but state and local law can go beyond federal low to provide additional protections. Sometimes municipal ordinances provide the greatest protections to citizens or residents in a particular geographic area. New York’s Civil Rights Law is one of the most expansive pieces of civil rights law, offering protection for a number of rights that are not safeguarded under any other American law. In some cases, civil rights are based on case law, in which a court interpreted legislation expansively.
Liability is imposed on any person or entity that deprives a person of his or her federal civil rights under “color of state law” under Title 42, Section 1983 of the United States Code. This code section permits you to sue state and municipal government officials who violate your federal civil rights, although this right may be partially or fully limited by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.
Discrimination and Civil Rights
In some cases, the civil rights of an individual are interfered with because of his or her membership in a particular group or some other protected characteristic of his or her identity. Protected characteristics include race, color, national origin, gender, age, religion, disability, and pregnancy. There are some characteristics that are only protected against discrimination at work or school or only in certain states, such as sexual orientation or criminal record.
Discrimination in various contexts is addressed in numerous federal statutes, each of which has its own enforcement provisions. Arguably the most influential civil rights law since reconstruction after the Civil War is the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, or religion in public establishments with connections to interstate commerce or that the state supports with financial funding or contracts to use land or buildings at no cost or reduced costs. There are many parts to the Civil Rights Act, including Title VI, which prohibits discrimination in educational programs that receive federal financial assistance, and Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination when an employer engages in interstate commerce.
Other anti-discrimination statutes include the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991. These statutes do not address every situation, and the Supreme Court has provided crucial interpretations about the scope of civil rights. For example, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Title IX found that a victim of intentional sex discrimination has the private right to bring a civil action for damages against a recipient of federal financial assistance. Federal courts were also crucial in mandating school desegregation.
In some cases, multiple civil rights statutes are implicated. For example, if a pregnant female applicant of Middle Eastern descent over the age of 40 does not get a job for which she is qualified in California, her civil rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act that is part of Title VII, and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act may be implicated.
Similarly, a pregnant and disabled teenager who is banned from attending high school because of her pregnancy may have grounds to file suit or obtain other remedies under Title IX, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504).
In most cases, retaliation in connection with the exercise of civil rights is prohibited. This means that your employer or school cannot take an adverse action against you in order to retaliate against you for filing a complaint or participating in civil rights investigations or proceedings. For example, your employer cannot lawfully fire you for testifying on behalf of a coworker who has been subject to racial discrimination by your employer, even if it turns out that your coworker was mistaken or unable to recover for the civil rights violation. Similarly, your school cannot expel you if its federal funding is withdrawn due to a complaint you filed about the campus rape policy.