On Bill of Rights Day: Get the quick facts on your rights.
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated December 15 as National Bill of Rights Day, calling on the people of the United States to “observe the day by displaying the flag of the United States on public buildings and by meeting together for such prayers and such ceremonies as may seem to them appropriate.” This year, particularly in light of our turbulent political climate, we chose to acknowledge Bill of Rights Day by raising awareness of the basic rights granted to the people of the United States by the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the US Constitution.
While many of us learned about the Bill of Rights in history class, few may remember them specifically or the significance they have on our daily lives. The first and second amendments do enter into public discourse with some frequency, but the Bill of Rights extends far beyond this.
The Constitution of the United States of America, ratified in 1787, initially extended few outlined fundamental rights to citizens. In 1789, James Madison (then a member of the House of Representatives) proposed the original Bill of Rights, saying:
I wish, among other reasons why something should be done, that those who have been friendly to the adoption of this constitution may have the opportunity of proving to those who were opposed to it that they were as sincerely devoted to liberty and a Republican Government, as those who charged them with wishing the adoption of this constitution in order to lay the foundation of an aristocracy or despotism. It will be a desirable thing to extinguish from the bosom of every member of the community, any apprehensions that there are those among his countrymen who wish to deprive them of the liberty for which they valiantly fought and honorably bled. And if there are amendments desired of such a nature as will not injure the constitution, and they can be ingrafted so as to give satisfaction to the doubting part of our fellow-citizens, the friends of the Federal Government will evince that spirit of deference and concession for which they have hitherto been distinguished.
Today, these first ten amendments are seen as far more than add-ons to our Constitution, and instead as fundamental to American government and values.
Know your rights. Below, take a look into the first ten amendments and the effect they have on the United States today.
The First Amendment: What it says
“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.”
We have the right to our own religion, to free speech and press, to convene together, and to petition our government when we object.
The First Amendment: Effects Today
Often discussed as the basis of freedom in the United States, the First Amendment is the most widely recognized amendment. However, many people see the freedom of religion to be constricted solely to those who practice a Christian denomination. There are also a number of restrictions placed on first amendment rights, including but not limited to speech in schools, obscenity laws, and laws prohibiting convicted criminals from publishing memoirs for compensation.
The Second Amendment: What is says
“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.”
Some people see this as the right to own and carry a gun, and others see it as a right to defend oneself against threat.
The Second Amendment: Effects Today
Likely the most hotly debated amendment, the second amendment is at the center of gun control conversations. The National Rifle Association, specifically, sees the amendment as extending to all rights associated with gun ownership with little to no regulation. However, others see this as in direct opposition to the unalienable right of life.
The Third Amendment: What it says
“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 government cannot force people to allow soldiers to live in their homes.
The Third Amendment: Effects Today
While very few cases have been brought to the attention of the Supreme Court regarding the Third Amendment, a few cases have established precedent that the amendment does not apply to police officers, extending officers the right to enter one’s property if they believe they have just cause. Conversely, the third amendment was a factor in the court case that extended protections to unmarried people obtaining birth control, finding that no officer of the state had the right to infringe on a citizen’s privacy.
The Fourth Amendment: What it says
“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.”
One’s personal items cannot be seized by the government, unless there is a signed warrant with just cause. It also states that evidence found after an unlawful search cannot be used to justify the search.
The Fourth Amendment: Effects Today
Today, there are a number of exemptions in place that allow officers to enter private spaces when suspicious of criminal activity, including vehicular searches, searches at border crossings, and foreign intelligence surveillance. However, many believe that these exemptions are often abused, specifically targeting Black and Latinx drivers and pedestrians. While the Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio ruled that “stop and frisk” policies are not a violation of the Fourth Amendment, many people see the policy as a discriminatory invasion of privacy.
The Fifth Amendment: What it says
“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."
A witness in a criminal case does not have to answer questions that may incriminate them. A person cannot be tried twice for a single crime. The government cannot seize a person’s land without compensating them.
The Fifth Amendment: Effects Today
Most people know this amendment best through the phrase “I plead the Fifth” on TV, meaning that the person invoking the Fifth Amendment refuses to answer a question and incriminate themselves. In order to make arrested individuals aware of their rights, officers must tell people the “Miranda Warning,” or explain the right to silence, before interrogating them. The amendment’s eminent domain clause is particularly relevant in present day, with an increasing number of seizures of private lands by private corporations acting under the approval of the US government. The most high profile of these cases recently is the Dakota Access Pipeline, which many people see as an unjust attempt to seize Native Americans’ lands
The Sixth Amendment: What it says
“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 defense.”
Defendants have the right to trial before a jury within a reasonable time span.
The Sixth Amendment: Effects Today
While we have the right to a speedy trial, no time span is laid out to follow. This means that defendants could still wait years for their case to be heard. One explicit exception to this amendment is made for individuals suspected of terrorist activity, who may be held outside of the United States (at sites like Guantanamo Bay) for as long as is deemed necessary before bringing them to the US for trial. In these cases, the government controversially preempts people’s own claims to begin their speedy trial in the name of national security.
The Seventh Amendment: What it says
“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 reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
People have the right to a trial by jury in certain cases, and the Court cannot act contrary to the jury’s findings.
The Seventh Amendment: Effects Today
This amendment rose out of the people’s distrust for judges with sole power over a case. In 1789, $20 went much further than it does today, so many states have put in restrictions to limit the number of cases that are put to a jury.
The Eighth Amendment: What it says
“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Bail amounts and punishment for a crime must both fit the extremity of the crime.
The Eighth Amendment: Effects Today
Similar to the vagueness of a speedy trial, “excessive” bail and fines were never defined as specific amounts, thereby giving leeway to the court system. This disproportionally affects poorer individuals charged with a crime. While one person charged with a seemingly harsher crime may be able to afford bail and wait for trial at home, poorer individuals who cannot afford the same amount of bail may wait for months or years in jail.
The Ninth Amendment: What it says
“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
The people have other rights not listed in the Bill of Rights, which cannot be violated, either.
The Ninth Amendment: Effects Today
Constitutional scholars debate about whether this bill acts as a catch-all to protect all rights that may be debated about in court, or whether it simply serves to state that we all have natural rights as humans, thereby not creating enforceable protections of rights. In 1973, the Supreme Court took the former position, ruling in the landmark Roe v Wade court case that the Ninth Amendment protects people’s right to choose abortion.
The Tenth Amendment: What it says
“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.”
Any powers not specifically under the reign of the federal government are delegated to the States.
The Tenth Amendment: Effects Today
This amendment was originally added to the Bill of Rights in order to appease states that worried the federal government was not invested in the interests of individual states. Specifically, it helped to appease Southern states worried that the North would abolish slavery. The Tenth Amendment also allows equal rights to take hold in certain areas of the country before others. For example, marriage equality was legally protected in a few states first, ultimately leading to protection under federal law.