What is the Bill of Rights?

Protest in the second year of the Iraq War

The Bill of Rights guarantees the right, among other things, to publicly oppose government actions. Photo by Infrogmation2. CC-BY

The U.S. Constitution has become a model for many other countries, but its most highly acclaimed provision, the Bill of Rights, wasn’t in the original document. Instead, the Bill of Rights is made up of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution; they were adopted by the first Congress and quickly ratified by enough states to become a permanent part of the American legal landscape. (Actually, there were 12 amendments originally proposed, but the other two didn’t guarantee personal rights in the usual sense. One of those was never ratified; the other, a provision affecting the pay of Congress, wasn’t ratified until late in the 20th century and isn’t considered a part of the Bill of Rights.)

As its name suggests, the Bill of Rights guarantees a variety of rights for people in the United States. In essence, the Bill is a long list of things that the federal government can’t do. Most of the provisions, which originally applied only to the federal government, were later extended, via the 14th amendment, to state and local governments as well:

  • The government can’t prohibit the free exercise of religion, nor can it establish a religion.
  • The government can’t abridge the freedom of speech or press, the right to peaceably assemble, or to petition the government “for a redress of grievances.”
  • The people are guaranteed the right to keep and bear arms. Although this provision was written in the context of militias, in 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it guarantees a personal right as well.
  • The government can’t arbitrarily search private property and seize private belongings.
  • A person who is tried for a crime can’t be retried for the same crime if the government loses its case.
  • A person can’t be forced to testify against himself.
  • The government can’t take private property without paying “just compensation.”
  • A person tried for a criminal offense is entitled to a public and speedy trial. A provision that the person is entitled to counsel was interpreted in the 20th century to mean that if the person couldn’t afford a lawyer, the government would have to provide one.
  • The right to a trial by jury exists in civil matters where more than $20 is in dispute. To date, this provision hasn’t been extended to state and local courts.
  • “Cruel and unusual” punishment is prohibited, as is excessive bail.

These amendments were and continue to be far-reaching. In addition to all the rights recognized, the 9th Amendment is open-ended, suggesting that there are other human rights not listed.

Although more than two centuries old, the Bill of Rights continues to be a vital part of the American legal landscape. Some of its provisions — such as the right to an attorney for those accused of crimes — have become well-known internationally through film and television crime shows.

Although the words of the Bill of Rights were determined early in U.S. history, their meaning continues to be a matter of debate and litigation. One reason is that few of the rights are absolute; another is that sometimes rights conflict with each other. Even so, application of the Bill of Rights and respect for its provisions have made United States citizens among the freest in the history of humankind.

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