"Civil rights" is a term that covers a broad range of subjects. For layperson, the best understanding is this: a civil right is a privilege or interest that has been established as a matter of law or custom and generally applies to most individuals as a matter of citizenship or residence in the United States as a country or in the state where you live. Consider "the right to vote": This right in the United States is conditioned on age and citizenship. The right to vote generally applies to any person age 18 or older who is a lawful citizen of the United States. Legal restrictions or limitations on the right of vote may exist depending upon the state where you live; on whether you have been convicted of certain types of criminal conduct; or whether you have been determined to be mentally disordered or mentally incompetent by a court of competent jurisdiction. There are a range of civil rights under federal law. Some states have broader protections.
What are the best resources for determining if my civil rights have been violated?
Under federal law, civil rights issues are a particular charge of the United States Civil Rights Commission and the Civil Rights Division within the United States Department of Justice. The Attorney General of the United States is the principal administrator and enforcer of federal civil rights law. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the EEOC, enforces civil rights in the employment area. Almost all federal agencies have a civil rights enforcement unit. In many states, a person may contact the federal civil rights enforcement agency and have a claim for state civil rights violations handled by the same agency. But increasingly the protection of federal civil rights issues is handled by state civil rights enforcement agencies.
How do state civil rights enforcement agencies work?
Almost all states have their own version of a civil right commission and civil rights enforcement agencies. You should check out the website for this agency for your own state. These websites can be very informative about your rights and remedies under state and federal law. In California for example, the state's civil rights enforcement agency is the Fair Employment and Housing Commission and the state agency that handles civil rights violations investigations is the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. DFEH handles complaints, investigates discrimination claims and can offer mediation as a resolution to certain types of problems. In more serious cases, DFEH can file an administrative complaint, conduct an administrative hearing on a civil rights violation and recommend that the FEHC (the Commission) order the payment of fines or the taking of specfic actions to remedy the civil rights violation.
Are there specialized groups that assist with civil rights enforcement?
The American Civil Liberties Union, NOW, the NAACP, the Urban League, La Raza are examples of some of the public interest organizations that do education and enforcement activities around civil rights issues. Individuals with physical and mental health disabilities may receive assistance in most states through publicly funded non-profit law firms that are called "protection and advocacy" organizations. These programs were established to specifically protect the interests of persons with disabilities. Some state organizations still use the term "protection and advocacy" in their agency names but most are now shifting to the term Disability Rights (name of the state where the agency operates), e.g. Disability Rights California. These agencies have websites that explain their functions and how to contact their staff.
Additional resources provided by the author
To get educated about your civil rights, check out the resources on the web that are identified in this article. Caveat: Many of these agencies and organizations have limited resources and may not be able to provide you with actual individual legal representation. In my experience, it can be helpful to file a complaint with the understanding that a series of complaints about a particular store or business may prompt an investigation based on the numbers. The best use of these resources however is education about what practices by a business or organization are legal or which practices are more questionable.
Your local community (city, town or county) may have a community-based civil rights education and enforcement organization that focuses on education and resolutions that do not involve going to court.