Some of the qualities that have historically set the United States apart from many other countries are the rights of its citizens. Yet, if you do not know what your rights are, you might not exercise them, which in some cases means that you are effectively giving them away.
Many of the rights that citizens have date back to the founding of our nation, while others were earned through years of efforts, protests and legal battles that helped shape our country’s laws. In the Declaration of Independence, the United States established the principle that everyone has certain natural rights (referred to in the document as inalienable rights), an idea that has played a central part in shaping our national identity and our legacy around the world. Establishing the rights we hold and who those rights apply to has also been part of our nation’s history.
The rights we do have are often subject to certain qualifications. For example, the right to free speech is one that nearly every U.S. citizen is familiar with, but it doesn’t apply to every situation. You have the right to express yourself, but that doesn’t include all of your actions nor all of the places in which you are free to exercise that right.
There are scholars, attorneys and civil rights advocates who spend their entire careers in pursuit of learning, determining and shaping the rights that we have as American citizens. Many of our rights are fluid and leave themselves open to a certain degree of interpretation. This is where the role of our courts comes into play in a big way.
However, despite all of these caveats, the fact remains that you do have certain rights, and knowing those rights can have a big impact in our lives. Here is a list of just a few of the things that all Americans should know concerning their rights.
You have the right to an attorney… You would expect a criminal defense attorney to put this first on a list, right? That’s because all attorneys know – and so should citizens – that people’s rights will be best protected if they have an advocate by their side who is familiar with the law. Without the presence of an attorney, a person might be pressured into saying or doing something that they don’t have to do and that is not in their best interests legally, simply because they did not have their attorney there to protect them.
If you are stopped by the police… you don’t have to answer questions or consent to a search. In fact, if an officer is simply “requesting” that you do something, you don’t have to do comply with that request. Once a warrant is obtained, or if you are placed under arrest, you will be forced to comply in certain ways, though you still don’t have to say anything and – again – you should always call your attorney if you are placed under arrest, or if you believe that you might be placed under arrest.
One of the most important questions you should ask if being questioned or stopped by the police is – am I free to go? If you are not free to go, you can ask why you are being detained. If you are being arrested, remain silent and call an attorney.
When it comes to taking videos or photographs… you have the right to do so in public places. This includes recording the actions being taken by authorities. However, taking pictures in private places – like residences or businesses – does not come with the same sets of rights. For the recordings or pictures you have taken legally, you do not have to turn these over to the authorities.
In the workplace… you have a right to workplace safety. Employers are required to keep their employees safe. If a worker feels as though there is a violation of workplace safety laws, they have the right to report that violation. An employer cannot retaliate against an employee for reporting workplace safety violations.
Discrimination… whether based on gender, religion or race has been the subject of ongoing debates for a good part of American history. You cannot be discriminated against in the workplace, in housing situations or by the authorities, to name just a few examples. There are a host of anti-discriminatory laws on both the state and federal level, though the fight against discrimination is one that has been fought since the formation of our country.
The right to free speech… is more complicated than most people realize. One of the exceptions to this right is the example used by the courts: shouting “fire” in a crowded place, meaning that speech which puts people in harm’s way is not protected by free speech laws. Free speech is also a right that deals primarily with speech in public spheres and, once on private property, your rights are not given the protection.
The rights of citizens are often highly dependent on the state in which they are in. This is especially true when it comes to the rights of someone driving a vehicle, for example. Also, each state has a number of laws that vary on many different civil rights issues. Civil rights cases can be filed in either federal or state court, depending on the case and the laws of the state.
It is also important to remember that determining our rights has been and will continue to be an ongoing process. Just because a person has the right to do something or the right not to do something, doesn’t mean that those rights won’t be violated. This is yet another reason to have an attorney. If your rights have been violated, your attorney might use that fact as a central part of your case.
The rights that we enjoy have not always existed and will likely change as our courts, interpretations of the law, and criminal justice system continue to evolve. One of the ways that we can be sure that it changes for the betterment of all Americans is to know them and fight for them when they are broken.
Marc Wolfe is an Illinois criminal defense attorney and partner at Wolf & Stec, Ltd.