Putting It Together


Civil liberties are individual rights and freedoms that government may not infringe on, while civil rights protect people against discrimination and focus on equal access to society and political life.

Our most fundamental civil liberties are listed primarily in the Bill of Rights, the ten amendments added in 1791 by the founders to address fears about the new federal government’s potential to abuse power. Initially limited to the federal government, they now apply, though unevenly, to the states. What those liberties are and how far they extend are the focus of ongoing political conflict. They are shaped by the full range of people, processes, and institutions in American politics. Both unpopular minorities and powerful interests claim civil liberties protections to gain favorable outcomes.

Some policies initiated by the government’s war on terror have challenged these rights. Indeed, we have seen that the media (in much the same way as the American public and participants in American government) are ambivalent about civil liberties, as their focus on civil liberties is in tension with equally strong concerns about crime and the need for law and order. American politics, powerfully buttressed by the media, is thus equivocal toward civil liberties—valued in principle but often submerged by other, seemingly more pressing, concerns.

With regard to civil rights, we have described the evolution and contents of the civil rights of African Americans. We started with the Civil War Amendments added to the Constitution to guarantee newly freed slaves’ legal status. We covered African Americans’ disenfranchisement and segregation, their mobilizing against segregation, the end of de jure segregation, and the civil rights movement. We described the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the issue of affirmative action. African Americans have had more success in combating segregation by law than fighting discrimination by practice. They have variously been helped and hindered by media coverage and depictions of their situation and struggles. Civil rights issues persist today.

We also addressed the civil rights challenges facing Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, as well as women, lesbians and gays, and individuals with disabilities. Latinos have gained language but not immigration rights. After the horror of relocation inflicted on Japanese Americans, Asian Americans have obtained their rights, although vestiges of discrimination remain. Rights issues for Native Americans concern tribal autonomy and self-government. Women have gained less civil rights protection, in part because of policy disagreements among women and because of fear of undermining men’s and women’s traditional roles. The LGBT community has won protections against discrimination in states and localities and through the courts. People with disabilities have won civil rights protections through national legislative and executive action.

In this section we showed that the media are a potential resource for disadvantaged groups to energize their members, sway public opinion, and achieve their policy objectives. Such groups may engage in behavior that attracts media attention; they may monitor and try to influence media coverage. Disadvantaged groups also benefit from their own media and through their use of digital media. Depictions in the mass media can be unfavorable—for example, when a group’s demands are framed as undeserved or requiring special privileges—or favorable, as in portrayals of the LGBT community on television entertainment shows.

Additional Resources

Read the “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department Report” by the U.S. Department of Justice here.