What are Constitutional Rights?
Authored By: Carl Vinson Institute
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Our Constitutional Rights and Responsibilities
This document tells you the following:
- What are constitutional rights?
- How do constitutional rights differ from other legal rights?
- From whom do constitutional rights protect you?
WHAT ARE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS?
We call a right "constitutional" because it is written into a constitution. There is a U.S. Constitution, and each state has its own constitution. The U.S. Constitution outlines the basic rights that can be exercised by all citizens of the United States. Each state's constitution also outlines rights for its citizens.
If a state constitutional right conflicts with a U.S. Constitutional right, the U.S. right prevails. As such, the state constitutions can add rights (for example, some state constitutions provide for the right to an education even though it is not mentioned as being a right in the federal constitution), but they can't take away any U.S. Constitutional rights.
How do constitutional rights differ from other legal rights?
Unlike other legal rights, constitutional rights cannot be changed by statute (a law passed by Congress or a state legislature). That is, a legislative body cannot just pass a new law that changes rights found in the U.S. Constitution or a state constitution. Rather, constitutional rights can be altered only by amending the constitution, which is a much more complex process than is the passing of a statute.Because they are not easily changed, constitutional rights have greater permanence than statutes do.
Constitutional rights are limits upon the power of a government (whether at the local, state, or federal level) to affect you in one way or another. They also limit the power of individuals acting on behalf of any government. However, constitutional rights do not apply to a private person's actions against you, nor do they apply to your actions as a private person against others.
Up to this point, we have talked about constitutional rights. However, remember that government can also pass laws. Laws (or statutes) may put restrictions on business, protect the public, or extend rights.
Laws are written for many different purposes. Some laws protect against crimes. There are laws to protect the environment. Some laws affect business. For example, state and federal governments have passed laws that extend constitutional rights against discrimination to private companies. Private employers cannot discriminate based on race, sex, national origin, or religious beliefs. Private businesses, like restaurants, cannot refuse to serve persons because of their race.
A government must always stay within the limits of constitutional rights, even when adopting laws to extend rights. Thus a government could not adopt a law prohibiting people from saying hurtful things. Such a law would limit the constitutional right of free speech.
* Excerpted from An Introduction to Law in Georgia, Fourth Edition, published by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, 1998 (updated 2004). The Vinson Institute is not responsible for errors in the online text. Content is for information only; in no way should the information in the book be considered legal advice to anyone on any matter for which there are legal implications. Any such matter should be specifically addressed with an attorney. The book is available for purchase ator by contacting the Publications Program, Carl Vinson Institute of Government, University of Georgia, 201 M. Milledge Avenue, Athens, GA 30602; telephone 706-542-6377; fax 706-542-6239.