What You Need To Know About Your Bill Of Rights

The other day, someone asked me what the Bill of Rights was, and sadly, this seems to be a recurring problem among millennials, especially since our grandparents and great grandparents could probably recite all 10 and the preamble! It appears that we either have a vague impression of what is written in the Constitution, or don’t know that the Bill of Rights is actually part of the Constitution. Le gasp! The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the same document?! That’s right girls, and guys, The Bill of Rights is the first 10 Amendments of the Constitution. As a political science major, in most of the classes that I take, everyone knows at least the Bill of Rights, and we happen to enjoy all things Constitutional, so we are at a distinct advantage to those who are less familiar with the law. So to lessen the gap, I would like to present, “Know Your Rights: Bill of Rights Edition!”


The right to practice whatever religion you please (minus human sacrifice and polygamy). Additionally, the establishment clause prevents the creation of an official religion, or government favoring one religion over another. The right to literally say whatever you want, which, depending on what you say, might get you slapped; after all, the First Amendment only protects you from retribution from the government, not from your pissed-off neighbor. One caveat to freedom of speech; no yelling fire in public (it’s a FELONY), or anything else that could incite public panic (although, please, if you see a fire, yell fire!). Some other exceptions are inciting speech (like, hey let’s riot and burn down a building right now), and defamation (other exceptions can be found here). Also for our readers attending public schools—public college are allowed to limit speech by time, place, and manner. But they should also provide a place and time in which you can say whatever your little heart desires. By the way, did you know you can assemble wherever you please? But for large assemblies its best to check with your town or city to find out if you have to file any paperwork if you are planning on holding a protest!

The right to bear arms (guns, not literal bear arms). That’s right—you can own guns, and the government cannot just come and take them away. One caveat: Please use them carefully!

This is personally, my favorite Amendment—no quartering of troops in private homes. Why is this my favorite, you ask? Because it’s the amendment that no one really cares about anymore, so I like to claim it as my own. Also if you think about it, this is actually a really important right! Especially for 18th-century Americans!

No unreasonable searches or seizures of property! This is an important one that many people are not aware of! As we all start moving out of our parents house and into our own, we should be aware of what protects us! It is not the job of the police to inform you that they need a warrant to search your car, house, or locked baggage. Pay attention because this is important!! Unless the police see something in plain view, have probable cause (i.e., you are swerving between lanes like Dale Earnhardt or you’ve admitted to using a substance), are given permission or have a warrant, you do not have to let them search your property! If you are pulled over for suspicion of DUI, they need a separate warrant for your glove box and trunk (again unless they have probable cause)!! The police can only take as evidence what is in plain view, or listed on the warrant. Respectfully ask them get a warrant, and have them bring a copy for you. You are not going to get in trouble for asking what they are searching for, or requiring them to get a warrant. They are just doing their job, so you do yours. The Fourth Amendment extends beyond physical property to the realm of privacy—i.e., the government must get a warrant to tap your phone calls or your home (YOU HEAR THAT NSA?). It also includes the exclusionary rule, which is why evidence taken through a Fourth Amendment violation cannot be used at trial—this means that if the police search your property without first fulfilling one of the exceptions I mentioned earlier, that evidence is inadmissible.

There is more to this amendment than just being able to “plead the fifth.” It requires that all capital charges go through a Grand Jury trial to determine if there is enough evidence to indict; this amendment also keeps you from self-incrimination (but only in certain cases), being charged twice for the same crime (i.e., you are acquitted of murdering Jim Bob, they cannot charge you again for murdering Jim Bob, but you can be charged with kidnapping Jim Bob, if you weren’t tried for kidnapping him during the first trial). The Fifth Amendment also prevents the government from just taking your private property without compensating you first.

This basically covers all your rights if you are facing criminal charges. It includes the right to know what you are being charged with. You also have the right to a speedy (as in you don’t sit in jail for two years waiting) trial by a jury of your peers, the right to confront witnesses testifying against you, and the right to have a lawyer. This has been extended to include a court appointed and government paid for attorney if you cannot afford one (in certain cases). The Confrontation Clause also means that if you are accused, you have the right to have a face-to-face confrontation with any witnesses testifying against you (in the form of cross-examination) during a criminal trial (know thine enemy!).

This is your right to a jury trial in a civil case (cases between individuals, usually over money).

This amendment protects you from excessive bail and fines, and also, from cruel and unusual punishment. The cruel and unusual part has been under debate for some time now. Does the death penalty count? It has kind of been left up to states to determine. But what the Supreme Court has determined is that the punishment must fit the crime and perpetrator (i.e., if the accused is mentally ill), so a person charged with breaking and entering is not given the death penalty.

The rights listed in the first eight do not mean that there are not more rights available to American citizens. This can be a complex amendment that leaves the Supreme Court a lot of wiggle room. For law-nerds it’s a doozy.

The powers not given to the federal government are left for the states and the people. This means that the federal government’s powers are limited to those listed in the Constitution, and really hones that we are a federalist nation, with the power defaulting to the states.

You have rights! The Founding Fathers want you to use them! Also check out the link to the Constitution, a.k.a. the coolest document ever! *

*PS I am a poli sci student, not a lawyer. Please use this article to inform yourself, not as legal advice, k?

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