Ten Things to Think About: The Bill of Rights

The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution make up what is known as the "Bill of Rights." These amendments form part of the essence of what makes United States citizenship the privilege that it is. Many people are familiar with freedom of speech, and freedom of religion, but the Bill of Rights offer more than those rights, as the following summary demonstrates. Keep in mind, the Bill of Rights applies only to state and federal government action. They don't limit what a company (think Google and the so-called "Anti-Diversity" memo, free speech in the workplace debate in 2017) or any person in the private sector may do.

Here are ten things to know about the Bill of Rights, along with links to relevant cases, and where to go if you need an experienced attorney in your jurisdiction.

  • The First Amendment protects your rights regarding religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly.

The First Amendment

The First Amendment seeks to protect five core civil rights:

  1. Freedom of religion
  2. Freedom of speech
  3. Freedom of the press
  4. Freedom to petition
  5. Freedom of assembly

However, understanding the extent of the freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment is a complex endeavor that the courts continuously encounter. The guarantee of freedom of religion forbids government prohibition of establishing an official religion and forbids interference with an individual's religious freedom. Freedom of speech is not an absolute right and can conflict with national security concerns; freedom of the press is similar in that regard. Freedom of assembly and petition are also closely related to the freedom of speech and share the same concerns about public safety. Taken as a whole, the First Amendment encompasses some of the most cherished freedoms that we value as Americans.

  • The Second Amendment protects your right to possess a firearm.

The Right to Keep and Bear Arms

This right under the Second Amendment is the subject of much debate. The Second Amendment discussion creates a lot of tension because of the balancing act between the government performing its duty to maintain a safe and orderly society, and the government not infringing on the individual's right to protect themselves with firearms. The Supreme Court clarified that the Second Amendment applies to states. The underlying issue is that gun regulations vary drastically from one state to another, especially concerning open carry laws. Always research the law or consult with an attorney before bringing a firearm into a public space.

  • The Third Amendment prevents soldiers from staying at your home.

No Quartering of Soldiers without Consent

Under the Third Amendment, the government cannot force you to house soldiers during peace time or during wartime, unless a law is passed. So, don't worry about bringing out an extra sleeping bag for your unannounced military house guests. Simply put, the government is prohibited from forcing you to house soldiers in your home.

  • The Fourth Amendment prevents police from searching you and your property without justifying the search.

Unreasonable Search and Seizure

The Fourth Amendment limits the police's power to search people and to seize property. The police must conduct reasonable searches in furtherance of their duties while maintaining an individual's civil liberties. Examples include police taking photographs and fingerprints of those they arrest and swabbing for DNA upon arrests for serious crimes.

  • The Fifth Amendment says you can't be compelled to be a witness against yourself in a criminal case.

Privilege Against Compelled Self-Incrimination

Often referred to as "taking the Fifth," a common application of this right occurs when a defendant does not testify during the trial. However, the right has more complexity inside and outside the courtroom. For example, the Supreme Court ruled that simply keeping quiet when the police ask incriminating questions is not claiming a right to silence. If you are voluntarily talking to police, then you must actually claim the right of silence by affirmatively asserting it, otherwise you risk waiving the privilege.

  • The Sixth Amendment gives you the right to a lawyer in criminal prosecutions.

The Right to Counsel

The Sixth Amendment guarantees that you can have legal assistance if you are charged with a crime. Specifically, the courts have interpreted this to mean that you have the right to have a court-appointed attorney paid at public expense, if you cannot afford to hire an attorney. However, the right to counsel does not apply until the state has initiated formal proceedings such as a formal charge, preliminary hearing, indictment, or arraignment; the right applies only to "critical stages" including: arraignment, post-indictment line-ups, plea negotiations, trial, sentencing, initial plea after conviction.

  • The Seventh Amendment gives you the right to a jury trial in a civil case.

Trial by Jury in Civil Cases

The Seventh Amendment requires civil jury trials only in federal courts, not state courts.

  • The Eighth Amendment prevents excessive bail or fines, nor cruel and unusual punishment.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Under the Eighth Amendment, you have the right to be free from "cruel and unusual punishment." The ambiguous term has been interpreted to refer to any punishment that can be considered inhumane treatment, or treatment that violates a person's dignity. For instance, the Supreme Court has ruled that in the case of minors, mandatory life sentences without parole are cruel and unusual, even when minors have committed homicide.

  • The Ninth Amendment gives you rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution.

Rights Retained by the People

The Ninth Amendment guarantees that you will not lose certain rights simply because they are not given to you or referred to in the Constitution. Since it is impossible to create a complete list of rights granted to the people, the amendment captures all the rights that are not listed.

  • The Tenth Amendment gives powers that are not delegated to Congress by the Constitution to the states and to the people.

Reserved Powers

Under the Tenth Amendment, any action that the Constitution does not say that Congress can do is reserved for the states and the people to do.

Preserve Your Rights by Speaking with a Lawyer

The Bill of Rights is an extremely valuable source of many protections that we value as Americans. If you think that any of these protections have been violated, then you should take action. Talk to a constitutional attorney today about preserving the freedom that the Bill of Rights ensures.

Next Steps

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