Why It Matters

Summarize the evolving commitment to civil rights and liberties

Photo of two hands, one white, one brown, side by side, fingers outstretched.


What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be treated fairly and equally? Are there particular freedoms and rights we should consider fundamental to a free and just society? These are tougher questions to answer than you might think. Indeed, the American experience demonstrates that each generation must be committed to defending and defining rights and liberties given new challenges and changing circumstances.

Take the right to privacy. Prior to the rise of the Internet, who would have thought that governments and corporations might develop the ability to read or listen in on all of our private communications? Yet, that world has arrived, as the controversy surrounding the Edward Snowden NSA leaks has demonstrated. How do we maintain a commitment to privacy in these circumstances?

Similarly, our evolving commitment to equality and basic fairness demands a flexible approach and an acknowledgment that various groups of Americans have not always been treated fairly. How do we ensure that race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or other characteristics do not inhibit life chances or access to the rights and liberties that mainstream groups take for granted?

As you work through this module, consider how historical factors have shaped fundamental rights and liberties, as well as the experiences of various groups. How do we remain committed to a realm of liberty and justice for all?

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify and assess the tensions between commitments to “negative liberty” versus more modern commitments to “positive liberty” provided by the state
  • Identify and explain important developments in the protection of civil liberties under the Constitution
  • Explain protection of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition in the Constitution
  • Explain the constitutional protections related to arms, search and seizure, accusation, punishment, property, and privacy
  • Identify challenges to civil liberties inherent in the information age
  • Explain the purpose of the Civil War Amendments; evaluate their success and failure with regard to African American communities after the war
  • Summarize the civil rights struggles of other minorities, women, lesbians, gay men, and the disabled
  • Identify civil rights efforts in the information age