The U.S. Constitution, along with various other federal, state, and judge-made laws, guarantee certain individual rights and freedoms. These "civil rights" include the right to be free from discrimination in public settings, and to freely practice religion, express opinions, and peaceably assemble. Much of civil rights law is based on the Constitutional concept of equal protection, which generally requires the government to treat all people equally regardless of race, sex, religion, national origin, age, etc.

However, there is a common misconception about civil rights, which is that they are truly "inalienable" or absolute, and cannot be taken away. However in reality, all rights must have limits if civilized society is to function, and the extent of an individual's civil rights will vary greatly depending on context. For example, although we generally have the right to freedom of speech, we cannot say whatever we want, whenever we want. Telling lies in court or disclosing government or corporate secrets can get you sued, thrown in jail, or both, depending on the situation. Civil rights law, therefore, is not so much about defining the rights we all enjoy, but rather about settling disputes in situations where the different rights and liberties conflict with each other.