6. Civil Rights & Liberties

Begin in agreement, for example: What makes America special is our commitment to freedom and justice for all.

Our values: Freedom, liberty, fundamental rights, fundamental fairness, basic rights, constitutional rights, personal privacy, equal opportunity, fairness, stopping discrimination and government intrusion

Our vision: Our nation was founded and built upon the self-evident truth that everyone is created equal. That ideal calls us to defend liberty and justice for all people, with no exceptions. In the 21st century, three policies are of foremost importance: (1) outlaw discrimination based on race, gender, age, disability, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity; (2) guarantee fundamental fairness for immigrants; and (3) protect our privacy from government intrusion.

Civil rights ensure that people will be treated equally regardless of their gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other differentiation that is irrelevant to our inherent rights as residents and citizens. Civil liberties guarantee fundamental human rights that are, or should be, protected by our Constitution.

The individual circumstances that require the protection of civil rights and liberties tend to be unpopular. It’s unpopular to defend the rights of criminals. It’s often unpopular for a minority to play a role where that group wasn’t seen before. Whenever free speech needs to be protected, it is almost certainly unpopular speech, because popular speech isn’t attacked.

But even when causes are unpopular, we can defend popular ideals: equal opportunity for civil rights, and freedom for civil liberties.

Let us consider a few examples:


Polls show that there is a tremendous difference in the way Americans feel about unauthorized immigrants depending on whether or not they are perceived as criminals. Seventy-eight percent of Americans would “deport all people currently living in the country illegally who have been convicted of other crimes while living in the U.S.” (Additional research demonstrates that these must be “serious crimes.”) Without being prompted about criminals, more than 70 percent say we “should not attempt to deport all people currently living in the country illegally.” More specifically, if “illegal immigrants have been in this country for a number of years, hold a job, speak English, and are willing to pay any back taxes that they owe,” 90 percent favor allowing them to stay in the U.S. “and eventually allow them to apply for U.S. citizenship.”

So, it’s important to focus on immigrants who have been playing by the rules. For example:

Say . . .
America is a nation of values, founded on the idea that every one of us has the right to freedom, justice, and fair treatment under our Constitution. The millions of immigrants who have lived in our country for years, who work hard and play by the rules—they make our economy stronger, which benefits all of us. That’s why [the solution you advocate]…

Why . . .

Right-wing advocates want to make this debate about crime. Don’t help ingrain those ideas by repeating them, and don’t use the word illegal even to make the entirely truthful statement that “no human is illegal.” Unless you are specifically talking about immigrants who may be criminals (e.g. in the debate about detainers), assert that you are talking about people with no criminal background.

Nothing you say is going to sway the right-wing base. In a one-on-one conversation, it is futile to keep arguing with an anti-immigrant stalwart. But if persuadable voters are watching you debate the issue, you can take another step and address the real problem: that our immigration system is obsolete.

Say . . .
Our immigration system should be completely fair; it should embody justice. But due to years of gridlock in Washington, that system is a mess. It’s time for the Congress to stop playing politics and create an immigration process that recognizes the value of people who have lived here for years, working hard and playing by the rules. We need a system that keeps families together, creates a roadmap for those who aspire to become citizens, and strengthens our economy for decades to come.

Overall, you need to move the conversation away from individual immigrants who are stereotypically portrayed as bad people, to the real problem: a bad immigration process. The word choices in these short examples require some explanation.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .
Illegal aliens

Illegal immigrants

Undocumented immigrants


New American immigrants

New Americans

Aspiring citizens

Refugees, asylum seekers

Why . . .

Don’t say aliens because that implies they are different from us, which is both inaccurate and offensive. Don’t say illegal because it suggests that they are criminals deserving of punishment, which is false. Undocumented has been thoroughly tested and, unfortunately, does not work. If you have to be more specific, you might say immigrants who are not authorized to be here. On the positive side, new American immigrants, new Americans and people who aspire to be citizens are poll-tested and move the conversation in a productive direction.

If you are debating the recent increase at our southern border of asylum seekers from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala (known as the Northern Triangle, one of the most dangerous places on earth), don’t call them “migrants.” They are “refugees.” Refugees have rights under both U.S. and international law. They are in no way “illegal”—rather, their applications for asylum comply with the law. (Even the mainstream media does not seem to understand that the current families at the border are not the same—nor nearly as many—immigrants as those who came by the millions during the Administration of George W. Bush.)

No matter their legal status, Americans are not inclined to give anything to immigrants, but at the same time, they generally don’t want to deny rights or necessities. So frame your arguments accordingly. For example, if you are arguing for a state DREAM Act to allow the children of new American immigrants to be eligible for in-state tuition rates:

Say . . .
We should reward hard work and responsibility. When young aspiring Americans graduate from a local high school after they have lived here for years and stayed out of trouble, we should not deny them access to college tuition rates that are available to all their graduating classmates.  Education is the cornerstone of our democracy and our economy, so when we enable young people to go to college, we all reap the benefits.

Or if you are arguing to allow immigrants access to driver’s licenses:

Say . . .
The laws about driving on our highways should be designed to make us all safer. So it doesn’t make sense to deny new American immigrants the ability to get a driver’s license. We should want them licensed to ensure that every driver on the road is trained, tested and covered by insurance. It’s a policy that benefits all of us.


Most Americans don’t understand the inequalities faced by LGBTQIA+ people and how those inequalities affect their lives. Regardless, in just the past few years, Americans have moved rapidly to accept marriage equality and reject discrimination against gay and transgender people.

For example, as recently as 2011, a majority of Americans opposed marriage between same-sex couples and it was still a fairly effective wedge issue for conservatives as recently as 2009. Today, Americans support marriage equality by a margin of 2-to-1.

By an even stronger margin, Americans support LGBT anti-discrimination laws. Almost 70 percent favor and only 24 percent oppose “laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing.” Even Republicans support such laws by a margin of 56-to-36.

We can continue this heartening trend by pointing out that, when it comes to what’s important about being an American, LGBTQIA+ people have the same values as everyone else.

Say . . .
This is about everyday Americans who want the same chance as everyone else to pursue health and happiness, earn a living, be safe in their communities, and take care of the ones they love.

Why . . .

Say that all of us want the same things in life and we should all be treated fairly and equally.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .
Protect or grant rights


Civil rights

Fairness and equality

Equal opportunity

Remove unfair barriers

Why . . .

Talking about rights, benefits or what LGBTQIA+ people deserve does not help persuadable voters understand the issues and it tends to sound like you want something different or special for LGBTQIA+ people. Also, civil rights comparisons can alienate some African Americans.

Use language that is inclusive, language that shows unfair barriers prevent LGBTQIA+ people from doing things that we hold dear or even take for granted, like fulfilling obligations to their loved ones, their families, their friends, their neighbors, their communities and their country. Use examples that help Americans acknowledge LGBTQIA+ people as average, hardworking Americans who deserve to be treated as such.

When you are advocating for anti-discrimination statutes, it’s essential to understand that Americans are not aware that LGBTQIA+ people can lose their jobs or be denied housing simply because of who they are. You must tell them.

Say . . .
All hardworking people in our community should have the chance to earn a living, provide for themselves and their families, and live like everyone else. But in our state/city, it’s currently legal to fire employees or refuse to rent an apartment to people just because they are gay or transgender. Nobody should have to live in fear that they can be fired or evicted just because of who they are.

Why . . .

Most states do not have anti-discrimination laws to protect gay people and fewer still cover transgender people. In states that don’t provide protection, it is usually possible for cities and counties to enact their own local laws, and many have already done so.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .
Employment or housing rights



Employment or housing protections

Treating people fairly and equally

Equal opportunity

Why . . .

Avoid talking about giving or granting any rights, which implies special treatment. Instead, say that we should not deny protections, which implies these rights are inherent to everyone. Obviously, we oppose discrimination, but that language can lead to a polarized debate, so it’s better to talk about treating people fairly, or protecting equal opportunity.

Finally, we may be sorely tempted to take some swings at our political opponents, to brand them negatively. But it is better to let them negatively brand themselves.

Don’t say . . . Say . . .
Hate, haters, hatred

Bigot, bigots, bigotry


Religious extremists

Anti-gay Christians

Love, standing for love

Exclusion, rejection and intolerance


Anti-gay activists

Radical right activists

Why . . .

When we make clear that we’re on the side of love, our opponents are against love. This implication is enough. It’s not useful to employ emotionally charged words like haters or bigots, no matter how tempting or true it might be. And we certainly don’t want to use language that seems to imply that an entire religious tradition or denomination is anti-gay. You can say this is the kind of exclusion and intolerance that divides our community or the hurtful rhetoric of anti-gay activists. But generally, stick to the positive and your audience will understand that you believe everyone deserves the same chance at happiness and stability, while our opponents simply do not. For example:

Say . . .
If America stands for anything, it’s equal opportunity for all. If you have two children or grandchildren, and one is straight and the other gay, you still love them equally. You know the government should treat them fairly and equally. That is why [explain your policy solution here…]

The Ten Commandments

Hopefully you won’t have to debate a proposal to display the Ten Commandments in government buildings. But you might, and we use it here to represent issues where religious advocates seek to impose their religion upon others. And, to understand the difficulty of the progressive position, it is important to realize that Americans favor posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings by a margin of more than 3-to-1.

Say . . .
The Ten Commandments are a moral inspiration and I applaud churches and synagogues that post and teach them. Another inspiration is the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, because it guarantees our most important freedoms. Our country is based on freedom. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have fought and died for our freedom. The First Amendment guarantees the right to display the Ten Commandments everywhere except government property—where it is prohibited. To maintain our freedom, this is the rule we must follow.

Why . . .

Freedom is the most powerful word in the American political lexicon. Conservatives understand this and use it—in inappropriate situations—again and again. So when progressives have the opportunity to defend freedom, we must do it explicitly and enthusiastically.