The United States is a country founded on the notion of protected civil liberties. After all, the pioneers who came to the country in the 18th century were themselves fleeing from persecution and seeking the freedom to practice their religious beliefs and the right to discuss their diverging views in public.
Today, these freedoms are protected by law under the Bill of Rights. They serve to protect individual freedoms from encroachment by the government. It is largely through the Bill of Rights that the Constitution limits the government's powers over the rights of individuals (Levy 8).
This paper examines the dual role the government takes in approaching such freedoms. First is the passive role, where the law prescribes that the government limit its role in matters of individual civil liberties. This includes the hands-off policy the government is supposed to take in matters such as freedom of the press and privacy rights. The second part of the paper then examines the government's more active role in enabling people to practice their civil liberties. This includes affirmative action policies that help address the historic inequality in the treatment of minorities and women.
During the early years of the country, many disputes centered around disagreements over slanderous newspaper articles or unruly public gatherings. Authorities then settled these issues through the applicable principles in the Bill of Rights, not through direct interference by the government. This general policy of non-interference has stood for over 200 years.
In cases of freedom of speech, for example, many government bodies and private citizens have raised concerns regarding the effects of violent media on viewers, particularly children. Most proponents of media regulations are also interested in protecting free speech and the free circulation of ideas. However, critics like Roger Kimball and his followers maintain that brutal and violent images in media generate violence within their viewers, by corrupting individual morals. Because of this, Kimball maintains that the government "also has an interest in protecting the moral sensibility of its citizens, especially the young" (21).
Despite the "greater good" orientation of this argument, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled in favor of ruled that any restrictions on free speech are unconstitutional. Free speech is consistently likened to a slippery slope. Once one form of expression - such as hate speech or violent images - is banned, other forms of restrictions inevitably follow.
Paul McMasters, a writer affiliated with the Freedom Forum, believes that not only are such restrictions unconstitutional. They are also unnecessary because Americans are capable of reading and watching depictions of violent or immoral behavior without "losing our minds or our morals" (22). Freedom and virtue are not mutually exclusive.
Recent technological advancements and growing fears of terrorism, however, are allowing government greater opportunities to widen their scope into other forms of civil liberties, such as the right to privacy.
Under the premise of the September 11 attacks, the government has passed several laws that many interpret as a growing intrusion into private activities over the Internet. For example, the Homeland Security Act has a specific provision that expands law enforcement's current ability to conduct Internet surveillance. Under this provision, law enforcement officials could go to Internet Service Providers like America Online and obtain information on and records of customer activity, even without a warrant. Other bills will allow representatives of the government to spy on Internet activities like e-mail, chatroom meetings and even webs surfing (Getz).
Like freedom of speech, the debate regarding abortion again touches on several conflicting ideas regarding civil liberties. Opponents of abortion, for example, charge that the government should protect the rights of the fetus, which now can be considered a person under several new laws. Proponents of abortion rights, on the other hand, argue that the decision to bear a child belongs to a pregnant woman alone. Forcing a woman to carry a child to term is an invasion of her right to privacy.
In 1970, the suit that became known as Roe v. Wade alleged that that Texas laws prohibiting abortion infringed upon Roe's "right to safe and adequate medical advice pertaining to the decision of whether to carry a given pregnancy to term" and also on "fundamental right of all women to choose whether to bear children." In addition, lawyer Sara Weddington charged that the anti-abortion statute infringed on Roe's constitutionally protected rights to privacy and the confidentiality…