Just over a century ago, as the United States faced massive human rights violations that the founders had fought so hard to prevent, the U.S. Supreme Court advanced a basic principle: Individuals have rights, but not absolute rights.
Individual rights come with collective responsibility. Our rights do not replace your responsibilities; they do not necessarily equalize your standing with your neighbors. Of course, rights are not anti-social. Rights can empower individuals to participate in a society that shares the same set of responsibilities. But our individual rights cannot be used to stifle or subjugate other forms of self-governance.
The court’s first speech rights ruling, Marbury v. Madison, explained the origins of the Declaration of Independence and the importance of the Bill of Rights. The document called for an “unalienable right of every person to be secure in his bodily movements,” and the founders were concerned that a loss of those rights would render the individual powerless. They sought to protect freedom of movement by establishing individual rights to move freely, including in and across state borders.
Today’s Declaration of Independence begins with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The founders did not say that human beings would attain the fullness of these rights on their own. They called for a government that would provide for that fulfilling human aspiration.
Again, it is important to emphasize that rights alone cannot constitute a means for creating and protecting a just and peaceful society. A legitimate basis for human rights is “meaningful engagement in the process of making and implementing law.” Rights must be coupled with concrete community commitments.
As Justice William O. Douglas wrote in his concurring opinion in Willis v. Wood: “Without the aid of consciences, individuals cannot succeed, but cannot fail; without community principles, no individual’s rights can be protected; without community norms, human life is doomed to ruin.”