Negative Rights

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Negative rights are permissions not to do things, or entitlements to be left alone.

Constitutions and laws may create negative rights by prohibiting a government from acting to limit or deny people within its jurisdiction the freedom to do or not specific things. For example, the First Amendment states that “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.” Another example is the Fourteenth Amendment: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Why it matters: Negative rights are a form of protection against government oppression (tyranny). At the time the Constitution was presented for ratification, several key leaders refused to support it because they believed it did not offer enough protection from potential government tyranny. In the end, several states ratified the Constitution only on the condition that a bill of rights would be added.

See also “positive rights.”


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