As part of a college project for a family member, I have been asked to give my opinion on the Constitution as it relates to group versus individual rights for his American Government class. How would you answer these questions? Below are my answers.
a. There seems to be a growing trend away from the individual rights enumerated in the Constitution toward broader protections of group rights. Is this a valid Constitutional development?
No. The Constitution is formatted in such a way that the rights of individuals are protected from particular governmental intrusions. This is especially true of the Bill of Rights, and continues on even into the abolition of slavery (13th amendment), voting rights to not be abridged due to race (15th amendment), and voting rights to not be abridged due to sex (19th amendment). In each case, the Constitution does not refer to a subset of citizens, i.e., blacks and women, and bestow on them rights they didn’t have. Instead, the Constitution declares that no one shall be enslaved or prohibited to vote regardless of race or sex, meaning their rights will no longer be infringed upon.
b. What are individual rights?
Individual rights are those guaranteed to be protected for the individual citizen. In other words, I have rights, you have rights, she has rights. As opposed to people who look or behave like me have certain rights, people who look or behave like you have certain rights. Individual rights protect a person regardless of whether or not some demographic category that describes the person changes.
c. What are group rights?
Group rights bestow upon demographically categorized sets of people rights not afforded to the entirety of U.S. citizens. In essence, group rights declare that one group of people: women, minorities, the elderly, et. al. to be more worthy of protection, or more benefits than someone not a part of that group. Hate crime laws and programs like Affirmative Action for example, demonstrate this principle.
d. Which are more important under the Constitution?
The rights of the individual far outweigh rights of groups. When a government divides individuals into groups, it says something about how the government views its citizens. It says that some individuals are more important than others. Group rights deny protections or benefits to non-group members, a fundamentally unconstitutional notion. The 14th amendment, which begins “All persons…” strictly prohibits the government from abridging the rights of individuals nor deny equal protection to “any person”.
e. Which should be more important?
Without a doubt the rights of individuals should be more important to protect. Through out an individual’s lifetime, they may or may not move in and out of sub-groups which have or lack extra protections. This means one day they may be in a group with extra rights and the next they may not. What doesn’t change is the individual. Regardless of one’s demographic category, rights bestowed upon the individual will never wane, they will always have the protection of the law. Individual rights ensure that no one is treated with preference in the eyes of the government. Any group can be created, adjusted, or abolished. Without the guarantee of having rights simply by virtue of being an individual citizen, you are at risk of losing rights based solely on pliable definitions, many of which are open to interpretation.