What are the fundamental civil liberties Americans enjoy by virtue of the Bill of Rights and how have the courts interpreted these rights? Under what circumstances has the Court permitted limitations on civil liberties? How have civil liberties been threatened by the war on terrorism?
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The basic and fundamental civil liberties Americans enjoy in the Bill of Rights identify freedoms that are not explicitly stated in the Constitution. These liberties serve as a type of "shield" against government encroachment. The Bill of Rights speaks to zone of civic and personal development in which the individual can live free of external control. These civil liberties range from personal expression, to freedom to be free of compulsory obligation, and possession of rights that apply to the individual.
These rights have been embraced by the Courts in a broad fashion. For example, while the word "'Privacy" does not exist in the Bill of Rights, the Court has interpreted these rights as inclusive of privacy. In the Court's 1923 ruling of Meyer v. Nebraska, Justice McReynolds asserted that the broad interpretation of the Bill of Rights as including privacy in individual pursuits is critical:
While this court has not attempted to define with exactness the liberty thus guaranteed, the term has received much consideration and some of the included things have been definitely stated. Without doubt, it denotes not merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry... and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.
Similar sentiments have been echoed by the Supreme Court over the years in how it sees the issue of privacy and individual entitlement. This displays a pattern in how the Court has understood personal freedom and privacy as resting in the heart of liberty.
For the most part, the Court has understood that individual liberties have to be curtailed when the rights of one person intrude on another. In Schenck v. United States, Justice Holmes spoke to how pure freedom without any form of limitation might not be the intent of the Constitution:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.
The Court has understood that limitations on civil liberties might need to be present when weighing interests of others. This can be seen in the Court's understanding of the war on terrorism.
The Patriot Act and the entire timbre of the War on Terror has presented a Constitutional challenge. Public safety has been the justification in threatening civil liberties. The courts have shown that the issue of public safety might necessitate a revisiting on such an issue. In its initial form, the Patriot Act made clear that the rights of individuals were to be seen in a larger context. However, Court decisions have sought to reconfigure such a view. Justice O'Connor articulated this in the wake of the judicial review regarding the Patriot Act: "We have long since made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the President when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens." Accordingly, the Court has asserted "A view of the Constitution that gives the Executive authority to use military force rather than the force of law against citizens on American soil flies in the face" of the guaranteed civil liberties. It is in this light where the Court has responded to the threat of Civil liberties in the War on Terror.
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