Bill of Rights

First Amendment

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment guarantees five rights: (1) freedom of speech, (2) freedom of assembly, (3) freedom of petition, (4) freedom to worship, and (5) freedom of the press. The First Amendment is the amendment that has been the subject of the most legal battles.

Second Amendment

A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The Second Amendment provides for the freedom to keep and use firearms. The amendment was originally written to protect the ability of the local population to form a militia in order to protect itself from an oppressive government. In the current age, there is less of a focus on forming a well-armed militia and, instead, more of a focus on maintaining the right to keep firearms.

Third Amendment

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

The Third Amendment guarantees that citizens do not have to provide room and board for soldiers of the state or federal government. During the time leading up to the American Revolution, the British government forced colonists to house and feed their soldiers. This is one of the least litigated amendments, with only a few court cases being heard about this amendment. There are no U.S. Supreme Court cases centered on the Third Amendment, primarily because there have been few occasions when the United States has been attacked on its own soil. Thus, there are few opportunities for legal challenges to this amendment. Its most visible impact is seen in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), in which the Third Amendment was used in support of the construction of a right to privacy.

Fourth Amendment

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Fourth Amendment protects against warrantless searches and seizures of a person’s property by the federal government or its agents. This amendment was the basis for the exclusionary rule as well as the right of privacy. Privacy is not explicitly mentioned in the Bill of Rights, but the Supreme Court has found intent on behalf of the authors and, as such, created one. The exclusionary rule entails that illegally seized evidence will be dismissed in a criminal court proceeding. The Fourth Amendment is best represented by the cases of Weeks v. United States (1914) and Katz v. United States (1967) . The Supreme Court in Weeks established the federal exclusionary rule. The exclusionary rule is a legal protection for defendants that prohibits the use of illegally seized evidence in court. Katz held that the Fourth Amendment protects people, not places. As a result of this case, as well as Griswold, a new era of privacy rights was born.

Fifth Amendment

The Fifth Amendment contains three rights: (1) the guarantee of a grand jury, (2) protection against self-incrimination, and (3) protection against eminent domain. A grand jury is a group of 16 to 23 jurors who decide if there is enough evidence against a defendant for the state to proceed to a trial. If there is not enough evidence, then the case will be dismissed. The protection against self-incrimination ensures that a person does not have to provide testimony against himself or herself. The last part of the amendment protects a person’s property from being taken by the state. If the state or government wants to use a person’s property, then the government has to pay for the property.

Sixth Amendment

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

The Sixth Amendment provides for the bulk of fundamental criminal rights a citizen has. This amendment guarantees a speedy trial, that a defendant gets a chance to confront his or her accuser in court, and that a defendant has a right to be represented by an attorney, to be able to subpoena witnesses to aid in his or her case, and to have an impartial jury. The guarantee of a speedy trial means that a defendant will not have to wait an extraordinary amount of time in order to have a trial. This protection arose as a result of colonists waiting a long time in a debtors’ prison prior to the American Revolution for a trial. The Confrontation Clause ensures that a person will get a chance to confront his or her accuser in court. This means that the person can question the accuser’s story and prove his or her innocence. The right to an attorney is embodied in this amendment. As a result, every person accused of a crime has the right to an attorney, even if he or she cannot afford one. The ability to subpoena witnesses to testify on one’s behalf is also provided through this amendment. This means that a person can have the court order another person to appear at the trial in order to testify, providing information that may affect the outcome of the trial.

Seventh Amendment

In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

The Seventh Amendment guarantees that every defendant has the right to a trial by jury. This is for both civil and criminal cases. This is the only amendment within the Bill of Rights that has not been incorporated, though every state has a similar provision within its state constitution.

Eighth Amendment

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

The Eighth Amendment provides protection against cruel and unusual punishment, as well as ensures that bail set for release from prison is not excessively high. This amendment has been used to justify the disuse of capital punishment.

Ninth Amendment

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

The Ninth Amendment guarantees that because a right is not mentioned in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, it does not mean that it does not exist. The authors of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights wanted to have an expanded view of civil rights and liberties, not a narrow scope.

Tenth Amendment

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The Tenth Amendment supports states’ rights and the rights of the people. When the amendment was drafted, the authors understood that they would be unable to explicitly list all of the rights that the states would have. Therefore, this amendment was left open so that the states would have more power than the federal government.

Douglas Jordan

See also American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Privacy Information Center ; Civil Liberties ; Corporate Personhood ; Habeas Corpus ; U.S. Constitution

Further Readings

Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967).

Kennedy, Caroline and Ellen Alderman. The Right to Privacy. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1997.

Solove, Daniel J. and Paul M. Schwartz. Privacy Law Fundamentals. Portsmouth, NH: International Association of Privacy Professionals, 2013.

Weeks v. United States, 232 U.S. 383 (1914).