Contemporary legal discourse differentiates “civil rights” from “civil liberties.” The former are generally understood as protections against discriminatory treatment, the latter as freedom from oppressive government authority. This Essay explains how this differentiation arose and considers its consequences.
Although there is a certain inherent logic to the civil rights-civil liberties divide, it in fact is the product of the unique circumstances of a particular moment in history. In the early years of the Cold War, liberal anticommunists sought to distinguish their incipient interest in the cause of racial equality from their belief that national security required limitations on the speech and due process rights of suspected subversives. Toward this end, they took two terms that had generally been used interchangeably and they created the civil rights-civil liberties distinction. Civil rights would forever after be attached to the struggle for racial equality and subsequent campaigns against other forms of public and private discrimination. Civil liberties would be attached to claims of individual freedom against generally applicable government regulatory power.
The civil rights-civil liberties divide was contested from the beginning, however. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the radical left condemned the divide as a tool for politically powerful liberal anticommunists to separate themselves from the declining fortunes of their former New Deal allies. In the 1960s, a new generation of critics of the divide made the case that the battles against discrimination and government oppression were indivisible. Some advocated a new label, “human rights,” which would subsume the categories of civil rights and civil liberties, while also recognizing social welfare rights. Despite these revisionist efforts, the civil rights-civil liberties divide survives, still contested, but also reinforced as each new generation puts it to new uses. This Essay not only reconstructs the largely forgotten history of the origins of the civil rights-civil liberties divide, it also identifies the ways in which labeling and categorizing the legal landscape can advance or impede legal change.