Criminal Justice Degrees Guide

20 Civil Liberties Laws Every American Should Know

By Kelly Kilpatrick With over half of Americans not knowing what "due process" is, not to mention how it relates to civil liberties, it is apparent that despite Americans’ love for our civil liberties, more than a few of us need to brush up on the basic laws which provide the foundation of our civil liberties. While there are literally hundreds of laws, not to mention constitutional protections under the Bill of Rights which comprise our civil liberties, we have chosen 20 laws which every American should know because of their current political importance and relevance. Understanding the basics of these 20 laws is an important first step for every American to know the extent and limitations of the civil liberties he or she is afforded.

Social Discrimination

Same sex marriages and those with disabilities are still discriminated against even though they are protected by the law. Find out which legislations stand up for you.

  1. Fair Housing Act:

    The Fair Housing Act was first adopted in 1968 but has undergone several amendments since then. The legislation was enacted in order to make it illegal for anyone to refuse to rent, sell, or make housing available to another person based on their national origin, race, color, religion, sex, handicap or familial status. The law also protects individuals in mortgage lending circumstances, making it illegal for anyone to discriminate when appraising property or require different fees or contracts of someone just because of their race, religion, etc. The Fair Housing Act extends protection to individuals with a disability like AIDS, hearing or visual impairment, mental retardation, chronic alcoholism and others. These individuals are allowed to make changes to their new home as long as they are necessary for the disabled to live comfortably in the home.

  2. Racial Profiling Laws:

    Racial profiling affects minorities of all ethnic and religious backgrounds in the United States. While states like Oregon, Arizona, Louisiana, New York, Georgia, North Carolina and Iowa have no racial profiling ban, Amnesty International reports that states like Nevada, California, Washington, Texas, Missouri, and Oklahoma do have bans on racial profiling of motorists, pedestrians, or both. Some states have chosen to extend this ban to profiling based on religion and religious appearance. Make sure you understand the profiling laws in your state in case you are unjustly accused of criminal behavior.

  3. Same Sex Marriage Laws:

    The California and Massachusetts governments cannot prohibit same sex couples from getting married. Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004, and California overturned the ban on same sex marriages in 2008. The California Supreme Court ruled that "an individual’s sexual orientation — like a person’s race or gender — does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights."

  4. Voter I.D. Requirement Laws:

    In April 2008, when the U.S. Supreme Court backed Indiana’s new rule requiring citizens to present a photo I.D. when they show up to vote, civil rights advocates were upset about the disenfranchisement of the "thousands of elderly, poor and minority voters [who] could be locked out of their right to cast ballots," as reported by CNN. These individuals may not have access to or the ability to obtain driver’s licenses or state identification cards, according to the legislation’s opponents. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles, however, will provide a voter I.D. card to anyone who wants one, free of charge. Though this case focuses on Indiana state law, citizens in all U.S. states may want to be prepared in case the trend spreads to other areas of the country and changes the voting process.

Workplace and Labor

These laws focus on equal pay and employers’ rights or limitations when hiring minority employees.

  1. Americans with Disabilities Act:

    Job seekers afraid of discrimination need to know about the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. This law makes it illegal for employers — including private and government employers — to refuse to hire a qualified individual based on a disability that would not interfere with their job. Employers are not allowed to ask about the person’s disability or give them a special medical examination that isn’t already required of all job candidates. Employers are allowed, however, to ask if the individual is able to perform the duties directly associated with the particular job opening.

  2. Equal Pay Act of 1963:

    The Equal Pay Act of 1963 "requires the employer to pay equal wages within the establishment to men and women doing equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility, which are performed under similar working conditions," according to the Feminism and Women’s Studies website. In addition, women who discover that they have been paid less than their males colleagues for a certain amount of time may file a suit or complaint to request that back wages, including salary raises and back pay, be awarded to them.

  3. Ledbetter v. Goodyear:

    This court case, settled in 2007, involves Lilly Ledbetter, an employee at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Gadsden, AL, who, after nearly twenty years of work, realized that she was being paid less than her male colleagues. Ledbetter sued Goodyear, citing the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that because Ledbetter did not make the complaint within 180 days of the discrimination taking place, she did not get any rewards. This ruling affects gender pay discrimination and race pay discrimination.

Health and Medical

For information about euthanasia, abortion, emergency contraception, and medical marijuana, check out this list.

  1. Oregon Death With Dignity Act:

    Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act is as close as the United States has gotten to legal euthanasia. In 1997, the state made it legal for "terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, expressly prescribed by a physician for that purpose," according to the Oregon state government website.

  2. Roe v. Wade:

    Even though Roe v. Wade was settled in 1973, much controversy surrounds the legality of abortion and the woman’s right to choose. Despite protests, terrorist threats and action, and other campaigns, abortion is legal in the United States, though the processes, time frames and rules for minors vary by state.

  3. EC in the ER laws:

    EC in the ER stands for Emergency Contraception for Sexual Assault Victims in the Emergency Room. Several states like California, Massachusetts, Illinois, New York, New Mexico and Washington require emergency room staff to provide victims of sexual assault with information about emergency contraception that can prevent unwanted pregnancies.

  4. Medical Marijuana Laws:

    Many groups feel that interfering with an individual’s right to eat, drink or otherwise consume whatever he or she wants is unconstitutional. The medical marijuana controversy takes the issue to the next level, arguing that patients deserve to access medicine or other substances that help them lead a more comfortable life. Medical marijuana is legal in states like California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska.

  5. Occupational Safety and Health Act:

    The Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970 to "assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women," as stated in the legislation. Working conditions that are considered harmful include exposure to toxic chemicals, unsanitary work spaces, too-loud noises, dangerous machinery or exposure to extreme heat and cold. If an employee tries to exercise his or her rights under the protection of the act, an employer cannot become discriminatory towards that employee or fire the employee. Through the Occupational Safety and Health Act, employees are also protected by 16 statues, including The Clean Air Act, The Solid Waste Disposal Act, The Safe Drinking Water Act, and others.

Family and Children

Parent-custody laws and protecting children against predators online are major issues right now. This group discusses them both.

  1. Parent-child custody laws:

    Child custody laws vary by state, and citizens need to understand the policies enforced by institutions like Child Protective Services, as well as the state government. If the state declares a parent unfit, the government can take custody of the child, without getting approval from the parent. For more information on your state’s statues regarding child welfare, adoption, child abuse and child neglect, visit this page.

  2. Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act:

    This legislation, enacted in 2006, is designed "protect children from sexual exploitation and violent crime, to prevent child abuse and child pornography, to promote Internet safety, and to honor the memory of Adam Walsh and other child crime victims," as stated in the act. Adam Walsh, the son of America’s Most Wanted‘s John Walsh, was kidnapped and murdered when he was seven years old. The act also organized a database of child molesters and child predators to increase the protection and security of children.


Learn more about the civil rights for immigrants in U.S. custody and detainee camps here.

  1. Detainee Basic Medical Care Act:

    Immigration is a big issue in the United States, affecting politics, the economy, social and moral standards, and civil rights. In 2008, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey proposed the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act, which if passed, would "develop procedures to ensure adequate medical care for all detainees held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)," according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Currently, there are no standards of providing real medical care to detainees in immigration camps run by the U.S. government.

Privacy, Security and Right to Information

From The National Security Act of 1947 to the U.S. Patriot Act, these civil liberties laws are controversial today.

  1. The National Security Act of 1947:

    According to the ACLU, The National Security Act of 1947 prohibited the U.S. government and U.S. intelligence services "from operating domestically." This law is cited when criticizing the Bush administration’s allowance of the NSA to "eavesdrop" on U.S. citizens after September 11 via e-mail and telephone calls without securing a warrant, as reported in The New York Times.

  2. U.S. Patriot Act:

    The controversial U.S. Patriot Act, passed in 2001, allows the U.S. government to have more jurisdiction and more leniency when investigating terrorism threats and suspects, even in the United States. The act also gives the Secretary of Treasury more "authority to regulate financial transactions, particularly those involving foreign individuals and entities," as reported by Wikipedia, and it introduced stricter policies regarding immigration and border security. National Public Radio lists several "key controversies" surrounding the U.S. Patriot Act, including "sneak and peak" warrants, "which let authorities search a home or business without immediately notifying the target of a probe."

  3. Freedom of Information Act:

    Anyone, including foreign nationals, is allowed to submit a request for information from U.S. federal government agencies, including agency records. The Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1966 and does include some exemptions, including for information pertaining to national security, personal privacy, certain law enforcement records, geological information and more. A 2007 report found that "only one in five federal agencies actually complies with" the Freedom of Information Act.

  4. Extraordinary Rendition:

    The sketchy U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition has garnered more attention since the terrorist attacks in September 2001, and it was even the subject for a major movie in 2007, Rendition. Extraordinary rendition features a partnership between the U.S. government and the CIA and is an "intelligence-gathering program involving the transfer of foreign nationals suspected of involvement in terrorism to detention and interrogation in countries where — in the CIA’s view — federal and international legal safeguards do not apply," according to the ACLU. The interrogation methods used do not have to follow traditional U.S. regulations, questioning their compliance with basic human and civil rights. In 2005, the Bush Administration was under fire for the hasty seizure of ultimately innocent individuals.

  5. No laws for the terrorist watch list:

    We chose to highlight the final item on this list because of its total lack of any civil liberties law. Many Americans already know about the TSA’s terrorist watch lists, which can be used when screening passengers ready to board a commercial flight. The ACLU estimates that as of February 2008, "the government’s centralized terrorist watch list passed the 900,000 name mark," as reported by The indistinct and possibly inaccurate nature of the list is guessed to include names of innocent people, and Jon Stokes of ars technica reports that everyone from an anti-terrorist specialist to a State Department diplomat have found themselves on the list. There are no civil liberties laws protecting individuals if they find themselves on the list, and you probably won’t even be notified if your name is included.

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