Nadine Strossen: Where do civil liberties come from?

Question: Where do civil liberties come from?

Nadine Strossen: Civil liberties are inherent human rights. Some people use the terminology natural rights. I think a resonant passage that many people can relate to is the Declaration of Independence with one amendment you can guess, when it says all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among this are life, liberty, so forth and that the purpose of government is to secure these rights and that concept is repeated in the Preamble to the Constitution, which sets forth the purposes of the new government and one of them is to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity and again, it doesn’t say to provide liberty, to grant liberty, to bestow it, no. We already are entitled to that by virtue of being born human. Rather than giving us liberty, government's purpose is to protect the liberty that we already have now. It is one thing to say that on paper and I really for all the shortcomings, I do think it really was…and obviously we were nowhere close to those ideals when the declaration was penned and yet it is so significant that those worthy aspirations of this new government was the first time in history that a government was dedicated to those libertarian and egalitarian ideals and the ACLU founders recognized that these rights were not going to be self executing, that government officials were not necessarily spontaneously going to fulfill that responsibility to protect people's rights rather than suppressing their rights and had this radical idea that they would actually do what is necessary to help people who first of all be aware of what their rights are and secondly to do what is necessary to protect them through every possible means. I think we are best known for litigation, but from the beginning we have been extremely active in legislative arenas as well and in the public forum.To define what is a civil liberty is quite similar to what the United States Supreme Court does when it tries to interpret the word liberty which appears in a couple of crucial passages in the Constitution including in the Bill of Rights, but I do have to stress one difference, which is the ACLU is not the American Constitutional Law Union. People will often ask me, why aren’t you doing more to enforce the Second Amendment or how we interpret the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms and for us the question is should something be a fundamental human right, and if the Constitution is a tool that we can use to enforce it, fine, but if the Constitution does not [Inaudible] to those purposes, then we will look for another tool and let me give you one concrete example and then I will come back to the more abstract question. So, for example, and this is surprises many people, there is no constitutional right to be free from racial discrimination by any entity or individual aside from the government. The Constitution only applies to governmental actions and so, therefore until we had the 1964 Civil Rights Act, private employers, private restaurants, private corporations, landlords…you name it…were completely free to discriminate in the most blatant ways on any basis they chose, including race. The Constitution simply did not apply. The ACLU therefore lobbied very hard for the Civil Rights law because we believe that there is a fundamental civil liberty to be free from racial and other forms of demographic discrimination when you are dealing with major aggregations of private power in the employment, in the work place, in housing and so forth. So, civil libertarians will debate and disagree among ourselves over particular issues and it is certainly true that abortion to the best of my knowledge was not expressly on the ACLU radar screen until sometime in the, I believe, 1960s and I do know this that the ACLU was the first national organization to call for a woman's right to choose an abortion, to be protected under the Constitution. I think it is an organic outgrowth of work that we had from the beginning. One of our earliest clients back in the 1920s, our first decade of existence, was Margaret Sanger. We also represented Emma Goldman and these were two women who were advocating what I think is exactly the same right which is a woman's right to information and decisional autonomy about her reproductive options and medical information and assistance to carry out and informed choice in those areas.


Recorded On: 2/14/08

Civil liberties are human rights, Strossen says.

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