Considered the basic ingredients for democracy, civil rights protect personal liberty, guarantee equal access to public services and ensure the right to vote. Although originally granted only to a minority, these rights now extend to all citizens of the United States. Access to these rights has transformed the American political process and created a democracy where all of its citizens are guaranteed a voice.
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech is an indispensable asset to American democracy. The right to express a unique point of view allows Americans to exchange new ideas and to hear different interpretations of the truth. The ability to exchange information also allows Americans the opportunity to debate, a critical component of the democratic process. Through debate, people convince one another of a course of action and form a majority opinion. Majority opinion is expressed when citizens vote, and it is these opinions that enable politicians to be elected and laws to be passed.
Freedom of the Press
Like freedom of speech, freedom of the press protects the plurality of information that Americans are able access and denies the government the right to prevent material from being published. This right has been an instrumental part of American democracy and has been the catalyst for major political change. From 1972 to 1973, for instance, the "Washington Post" published a series of articles chronicling an investigation of what was known as the Watergate scandal. These articles informed the American public about the scandal and led to a Senate investigation. The investigation ultimately resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Freedom of Assembly
Freedom of assembly is an important right for American democracy because it enables free speech. Without the ability to assemble in groups, people would not be able to share their views with others in a public setting, making the freedom of speech much more difficult to use effectively. Right to assembly was used as a powerful tool during the civil rights era when protesters engaged in peaceful demonstrations that captured public attention and led to the elimination of segregation in the United States.
Freedom to Vote
The civil right to vote provides American citizens with a voice in their government, and is so important that it is considered a basic human right by the United Nations. Through voting, citizens elect representatives to office who speak on their behalf in the government. These representatives allocate funding, enact and repeal laws and sometimes wage war on behalf of the constituents who elect them. Because democracy, by definition, requires representative government, it is the American right to vote that creates and continuously shapes the democracy of the United States.
- Cornell University Law School: Legal Information Institute - Civil Rights
- The Brookings Institute: Democracy, Human Rights, and the Emerging Global Order
- Lincoln University: Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Press
- The University of Texas at Austin: Harry Ransom Center - The Woodward and Bernstein Watergate Papers
- Lincoln University: Freedom of Assembly
- Understanding Democracy: Data from Unlikely Places; Russell J. Dalton, Doh C. Shin, Willy Jou
- Seattle University School of Law: Importance of the Right to Vote
- The United Nations: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
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