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The difference between civil liberties and civil rights [The Reply]

September 30, 2011 |  4:36 pm

Obama-on-Awlaki

In Thursday's Op-Ed pages, Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, wrote that President Obama may prove the most disastrous president in our history in terms of civil liberties. (Ironically, his article ran the same day Obama ordered the killing of Anwar Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to Al Qaeda, thus further proving Turley's point.) While the response on our discussion board overwhelmingly agreed with Turley's Op-Ed, there were a few readers who didn't understand the difference between civil liberties and civil rights. See below for Turley's reply.

--Alexandra Le Tellier

My column was on civil liberties, which are those basic rights and freedoms guaranteed under our Bill of Rights and the Constitution.  While they do not change in the sense that they are fundamental rights, they have been "recognized" in a belated or evolving fashion by the courts.  Civil liberties include those core rights we associate with freedom, such as free speech, privacy, due process.  Civil rights generally refer to laws that protect us from unequal treatment or harassment based on such characteristics as race, gender, age, disability, religion/belief, sexual orientation and nationality. 

Notably, Obama has been criticized on both fronts.  While he recently moved against "don't ask, don't tell," his administration has been in court making the same arguments as the George W. Bush administration in denying that discrimination based on sexual orientation should be treated the same as discrimination based on race, religion or gender.  He remains undecided on same-sex marriage.  These are viewed as civil rights matters.

The subject of my column is properly called civil liberties.  At issue, for example, is the right of the president to unilaterally declare that citizens should be killed on sight because his administration deems them part of a terrorist organization. 

I hope that helps a little.

--Jonathan Turley

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If you care about civil liberties, vote for Ron Paul

Does U.S. have the right to target and kill its citizens?

Photo: President Obama speaks about the killing of Anwar Awlaki during remarks at Ft. Meyer in Virginia on Friday. Credit: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

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