Civil Liberties

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Civil liberties is a term that has generated many meanings over the centuries of its use. In their legal shape, civil liberties are the freedoms enjoyed by all in a society governed by the rule of law. These liberties can be asserted in ordinary courts against any wrongdoers (even government agents or servants) that interfere with them. The difference from human rights lies in the residual character of these liberties: they are the freedoms we enjoy in the space which law has not occupied, the zone of individual autonomy untouched by government regulation. Expressed in this way, it is not surprising that supporters of civil liberties often find themselves suspicious of state power. This view of the term comes close to libertarianism and can be seen today in the way in which civil libertarians express their grave anxieties about, for example, DNA sampling or CCTV surveillance.

Another version of civil liberties approaches it from the opposite direction, seeing the idea as encompassing the political freedoms that are essential to the proper functioning of democratic society. On this reading it is the freedoms of speech, association and assembly together with personal liberty that truly matter since these are the essential building blocks of the kind of open, discursive society on which democratic institutions depend. This type of civil libertarian has more in common with the republican tradition that sees freedom as being about living in a free society than he or she has with those who see liberty as being mainly about being able to resist the Big Brother state.

Civil liberties and human rights

In whatever form it takes, civil liberties tend to be more located in a specific place and culture than their more cosmopolitan counterparts, human rights. As such they are often attractive to those for whom the langauge of human rights makes too many ethical demands. Attractive though such localism is, however, the risk from the progressive perspective is that a civil libertarian approach can be more easily desensitised to minorities and in particular to outsiders than is the case with the more universalistic language of human rights.

Additional Resources

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Author: Conor Gearty