Law Office Of Michael G. O’Neill, The Types of Cases We Handle
Civil Rights

When we talk about civil rights we are usually referring to certain freedoms and rights of individuals that the government cannot violate. In this sense, our civil rights represent a triumph of the basic rights of individuals over the rights of the government. I say the "rights" of the government, but governments don't have rights so much as they have power.

The "revolution" of the American revolution was in the idea that the source of government's authority was in the people, i.e., that rights originated with individuals and that individuals give up some of those rights to the government, but any rights not given to the government belong to the people. Before then and for most of history, governments were seen as being all powerful and individuals had only those rights that the government saw fit to give to them.

A discussion of rights in these terms is purely philosophical and not really of much use. The reality is that it is impossible to think about rights without also thinking about power. What is a right without the power to enforce it? We have the right of free speech, to use an obvious example. This means we have the right to criticize the government without fear of retribution. I can say George Bush is a bum, in fact, I can say he is a war criminal, and I cannot be punished for it. But what if I am? What if tomorrow morning I am picked up and held by the FBI. Where is my right of free speech? Unless I have some power to enforce that right, it is meaningless.

Where is this power to enforce civil rights? Where does it come from, and how do we access it?

The truth of the matter is that this is a very tenuous situation. One would be justified in believing that we are in the middle of some very critical times in terms of our civil rights. The power to enforce our civil rights is really a shared social value. Collectively we value those rights enough so that the government must respect them, at least in the by and large. Well, this is a fascinating subject, which I will return to. In the meantime, I will give a general overview of our principal civil rights, followed by a discussion of "private" civil rights, meaning rights between individuals, as opposed to between individuals and the government.

Next: A Survey of the Principal Civil Rights >>