American citizens enjoy rights and freedoms of a democratic society, including the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, and the right to live anywhere and to choose any occupation. Along with these rights comes a legal obligation to uphold and obey the laws of the land. Certain people may consider it a moral obligation to exercise their rights, but American citizens are not always legally obliged to do so. For example, while everyone has the right to bear arms, each citizen also has the right to choose whether or not to own weapons.
The U.S. Constitution confers rights to American citizens. The first 10 amendments to the constitution make up the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment, for example, guarantees freedom of speech, the press and religion, as well as the right to peaceful assembly and the right to petition the government. The Second Amendment gives people the right to bear arms. The Fourth Amendment gives the right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure. The Sixth Amendment grants any accused in a criminal prosecution the right to a speedy and public trial, as well as the right to be informed of the nature of the accusation.
Other Legal Rights
Federal, state and local statues also grant legal rights. Examples of federal rights are acts that ensure employee safety on the job, access to government services, and the right to information. Among other rights, state laws define rights regarding motor vehicle operations, alcohol sales, and rights of tenants and landlords. Local statutes may govern building permits, use of roadways, and local services.
Legal obligations are implicit within all of these legal rights. For example, if anyone with a valid driver’s license has the right to drive a passenger car, those citizens who do not have a valid license are legally obligated not to drive. Landlords and tenants or employers and employees all have certain statutory rights and are equally obligated to follow the laws. Those who do not obey the law may be fined, incarcerated, or have certain rights, such as a driver’s permit, revoked.
Certain citizens consider it their moral obligation to exercise their constitutional rights. For example, while Americans are not legally obligated to vote, certain individuals may consider it a moral duty to do so. By exercising their First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly and to petition the government, suffragists organized and petitioned the government for decades until the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, extending the right to vote to women. Likewise, public pressure and demonstrations by Americans brought about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory voting practices, in essence extending the right to vote to blacks.
- Our Documents: Voting Rights Act (1965)
- Our Documents: 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Women’s Right to Vote (1920)
- Our Documents: 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Voting Rights (1870)
- United States Department of Labor: Occupational Safety & Health Administration
- United States Department of Justice: What is FOIA?
- Colorado Department of Revenue: Division of Motor Vehicles
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