The Rights of Minors in the USA

Hello, Readers!

I have finally gotten around to doing a post about something I’ve been wondering about for awhile. How do the rights that American citizens get simply by being American citizens apply to minors?

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First, some background information:

The First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

In simpler terms, the 1st Amendment protects the people’s right to practice religion, to speak freely, to assemble (meet), to address the government and of the press to publish.

The 26th Amendment:

The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.

In simpler terms, any US citizen who is over 18 can vote as long as they haven’t committed a crime that was bad enough to get that taken away. 

The Preamble to the United States Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America

Teeny Excerpt from the Declaration of Independence:

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.

For a full list of the amendments, click here. For a list of the amendments simplified, click here. For the full Declaration of Independence, click here.

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One of the great things about being American is freedom. Every citizen, which, by the definition in the 14th amendment, is someone born or naturalized in the US, is granted these rights. That means that even a four minute old newborn born in the US is technically granted the same rights as a 47 year old man born in Peru who became a citizen when he was fifteen, who is granted the same rights as your 35 year old English teacher who was born and raised in Wyoming, who is granted the same rights as President Obama, who is granted the same rights as a 13 year old from NYC. Technically.

But is that really the case? By law, it is. As you can see in the 26th amendment, currently easily accesible by scrolling up on your computer a tiny bit, the one main restriction of a right for minors is voting. Unless you count other things like drinking, driving, (never at the same time– always illegal) working, and going into the military as rights, which aren’t really rights, that’s the only real rights restriction by law that I could find. (Please post a comment if you can think of another one.)

There have been lots of court cases arguing about the rights of children.

In the case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969), a high school banned students from wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam war. This case was taken to the Supreme court, which ruled that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” One ruling in favor of minors’ rights.

However, in another case,  Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), the Supreme Court ruled that schools are allowed to censor a school newspaper that’s a part of the school curriculum. In case you’re curious, the articles that caused the dispute were about divorce and teenage pregnancy. At the same time, many school newspapers have a lot more freedom of press than a lot of other newspapers. It can depend on the staff at the school.

Not all children’s rights questions have been taken to the Supreme Court. Here are a few of my questions:

  1. If we as American Citizens have freedom of speech, why can kids get into trouble for saying something deemed “disrespectful” or “backtalk?”
  2. What if a minor is an atheist and the parents are religious? Can the minor legally be made to go to church or celebrate a religious holiday?
  3. The Declaration of Independence made “the pursuit of  happiness” a right. If a minor is doing something legal that makes them happy or happier, but their parents/guardians disapprove, who is in the right?
  4. If a minor wants to attend a legal rally (see 1st amendment) but their parents/guardians don’t like the cause, but the minor disobeys them, who is in the right?
  5. It has been accepted that women are included in the statement “all men are created equal.” How many people believe that children are included in this? Minors are usually not considered “equals” to their authority figures, but is that an infringement of our rights as American Citizens?

After doing some research, I have done my best to answer them in both personal and legal views. If there are any lawyers/government people/opinionated people willing to comment their ideas, I would love to read them!

For my first question, I believe that the answer isn’t a one word thing. I think that the authority figures want to help teach people the correct way to talk to someone. I think that our society and legal system views children secondary to adults, which can be good and bad. The good is that a minor isn’t usually put in an adult prison and expected to have the same responsibilities as an adult. The 1/2 way good, 1/2 way bad is that parents have the right to punish their kids however they think is necessary (as long as it isn’t abusive, of course.) The full on bad is that it’s often sort of hurtful to kids to be viewed as unequal.

For my second question, I think that the answer would be no. Freedom of religion is openly allowed, as long as the religion does not believe in harmful things. If a minor does not want to attend a religious service, they should have the freedom to opt out as long as they are responsible and old enough to be left alone or not supervised by their parents. Not all parents would agree with this, but I think that both in my opinion that not letting a minor have any choice in religion is a violation of freedom of religion. Legally, however, the Supreme Court has consistently upheld the right for parents and guardians to chose how they raise their child and where and how the child is educated. I would be curious to know whether religion would be considered in how parents raise their children.

I’m not totally sure on the answer of the third one. I think that if this was a court case, the parents/guardians would probably be granted the right to control what their child does. However, I think on a moral standpoint, there should be a balance. If someone’s mom loves gymnastics and really really want’s her daughter to take gymnastics, but the daughter really really loves basketball, the mom should let the daughter do what she loves.

For my fourth question, I think that the parent is in the right. As I pointed out in my explanation of the answer to my second question, the Supreme Court supports the right of parents to raise their children how they see fit. There is no law that I could find that says that a child has to obey their parents, but I think we all know that that is a very important thing, regardless of the law.

For my last question, I have actually made two polls to see what people’s opinions are. If you have a different opinion, please share! (Note: Equal Rights means equal rights except for voting.)

Here’s what I think: I think that minors are included in the statement “all men are created equal.” To me, that statement does not mean that everyone is the same, it just means that everyone has the same rights and no one is above another person or above the law. Some people have more power than others, but nobody is a better or worse person because of their role in society, their money, their age, their  race, their religion, their gender, their sexual orientation, their national origin, and their physical appearance. (I think I covered everything.) A 50 year old successful, groundbreaking brain surgeon has equal rights and should get equal treatment to a 50 year old struggling lunch lady in a high school cafeteria.

Of course, people will admire the brain surgeon more. She has done amazing things and saved hundreds of lives through her research and work. But she is not above the lunch lady. Both women have the same rights and should be treated with respect and dignity, no matter how “important” one or the other seems.

This is similar to the rights of an adult and a minor. A minor has the same rights as an adult, with the exception of voting. The adult is not treated the same as the minor, but they both have the same rights and deserve respect and dignity. Respecting an adult is different than respecting a minor, but both the adult and the minor deserve the respect that is appropriate to their age and responsibility. 

Here’s something else to think about. There is a proposed amendment that hasn’t been passed yet called the parental rights amendment. It looks like this:

SECTION 1

The liberty of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their children is a fundamental right. 

SECTION 2

The parental right to direct education includes the right to choose public, private, religious, or home schools, and the right to make reasonable choices within public schools for one’s child.

SECTION 3

Neither the United States nor any State shall infringe these rights without demonstrating that its governmental interest as applied to the person is of the highest order and not otherwise served.

SECTION 4

This article shall not be construed to apply to a parental action or decision that would end life.

SECTION 5

No treaty may be adopted nor shall any source of international law be employed to supersede, modify, interpret, or apply to the rights guaranteed by this article.

This is not an amendment yet, so it has no legal power. If it was put into action, it would clarify some of the court rulings. I’m not sure whether I support it or not. It would mean that parents have the legal right to control exactly how they raise their kids. Honestly, I don’t think it wouldn’t really change any of the answers to my 5 questions. I just wanted to put it out there because it’s related to this topic.

After looking at a lot of government, US history, legal, and petition websites, I finally came to a conclusion that makes sense to me. (I would be curious to know whether you agree or disagree with this statement.)

As someone grows and matures, the ways that they exercise and need their rights change, but the rights themselves do not change. 

A five year old does not have the same understanding, comprehension, and need to use rights as a 45 year old. This does not mean that the 5 year old is not entitled to the same  rights as the 45 year old if the need should come up.

As I finish this post and read back over it, I finally understand why people say I would be a good lawyer. I have had the argumentative, persistent, stubborn part down since I could talk, and now I just wrote a 2,035 word thing on laws. If school wasn’t out already, I would totally see if I could get extra credit from writing something with that much research involved.

I probably could have kept going for a long time on this subject, but since this is a blog and not a book, (which I could totally turn it into one day) I’ll keep it to this size.

Thanks for reading this and please feel free to comment your opinions!

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8 thoughts on “The Rights of Minors in the USA

  1. Here is a question:

    With rights come responsibilities. If children should be granted all the same rights as adults, should they have all the same obligations? For instance, we do not treat juvenile criminals in the same way we treat adults, with the understanding that they have not fully developed the same kind of judgment we expect from adults. Juvenile offenders often get their criminal records sealed when they become adults to give them a chance to start fresh. What would happen to this if we really treated children like miniature adults?

    Great post, Naomi

  2. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and considerations. I’m not going to comment on everything, but here are a few thoughts of mine to share:

    Don’t forget about liberty when condidering the fundamentals of US citizenship. “Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness.” Liberty is the freedom and responsibility to choose one’s path and go as far as one can go with talent, hard work and, yes, luck. “All men are created equal.” Notice the word “created.” Equality at birth is guaranteed in the constitution, but equality of outcome is not. In other words, in the U.S., we have the freedom to succeed or to fail, and to face life’s rewards and consequences either way. That’s liberty, and it applies to both adults and children.

    I think if you ask yourself why 13 year-olds are not allowed to vote you will get some ideas about why parents remain in the picture with a lot of your considerations. That doesn’t mean children don’t have a voice, but people of every age have to consider how and when that voice gets heard.

    Ask yourself why an adult U.S. citizen has to talk respectfully to their bosses at work, and for that matter their colleagues. Does the U.S. constitution and law permit them to talk disrespectfully? Yes, to an extent, as long as the talk is not threatening. However, what will be the consequence of exercising that “right” in the workplace? Free speech does not guarantee the right to say whatever one wants in any context with no repercussions or life consequences or regard to where and when the speech is delivered. There are limits to most things in life and this is no exception. But we are allowed to form our thoughts and exchange them, and as you say, “assemble” to express them. You’re doing a great job of that here!

    Lastly, remember the phrase is ‘Pursuit’ of Happiness. Our founders were incredibly wise. Our liberty affords us no guarantee whatsoever at happiness in life or day-to-day. But we are free to pursue it with all our hearts, within the confines of the laws of the land, and we have to face the consequences of those pursuits —both the good and bad— in our lives and relationships. (It helps if we put some thought in to clarifying what Happiness is really all about before we start our course at pursuing it.)

    So these basic inalienable rights as a U.S. citizen appy to you too, but some of them are in the context of your parent-child relationship (and legal status). When a child is much younger, they have less say in the path they take which makes sense developmentally. And the parent also assumes more responsibilty for the child’s actions. As they get older, they gradually assume a greater role in charting their own destiny… and all the responsibity that comes with it.

    Along those lines, I want to say that some of these considerations are better understood when also considering their moral implications and not just their legal ones.

    Go Naomi Popcorn!

  3. It seems to me that you are talking about two different kinds of relationships, the individual’s relationship to her government, and her relationships in the private sphere. The government (as represented by the school in some of the cases you referenced) is covered by the Constitution and laws of the United States. Government cannot, in theory, stop you from speaking and assembling and voting when eligible.

    In general the government does not tell families how to raise their children with some exceptions: requiring that children be educated; requiring that children who attend public schools receive certain vaccinations, which is in the interest of public health; intervening when children are abused or neglected. You can probably think of a couple of others. Personal relationships remain the concern only of those involved unless a law is broken, so families are usually the ones who determine the rules and limits for their own children.

    Your reasoning and research are impressive. You state your opinions in forthright, clear language. I appreciate your delving into this important subject.

    • I really enjoyed this, Nomzers.

      One area that’s interesting to me is how the interpretation of law can change depending on who is interpreting it and when.

      Laws are not absolute (though moral laws like Love, Truth, Justice, Beauty can be–so says our Rabbi). And families decide which laws are the negotiable ones and which ones are the moral fiber ones I think. Some families make non-negotiable laws ones that others see as negotiable. But should we all teach our children not to steal unless they are starving? And must we all agree upon the others? (Only 1 hour of TV/day).

      From there, a discussion of children’s rights is even more complex perhaps??

      xxoooo

      Auntie Lorri

  4. Dear Naomi,

    Wonderful research and thoughtful presentation.
    Do you have the right to a different opinion than your parents? Your teachers?
    Do you have the right to “respectfully” disagree?
    Are opinions different than rights?
    Do your parents have the right to have their life experience trump your actions?
    Does this imply that the minor is always less right?
    Do you always maintain the right to your beliefs and opinions?

    How come you are so amazingly perceptive and thoughtful and adorable and wonderful and you
    are not quite thirteen?

    Love you, Nomz!! Grandma Paula

  5. Naomi, this is really excellent piece. You do a great job raising the contradictions regarding children’s rights in the US. I work on juvenile justice reform and I think one of the greatest contradictions is how US laws treat young people who break the law. For example, in New York State, once you turn 16 you are automatically treated as an adult in the criminal justice system and are prosecuted in adult criminal courts sent to adult jails and prisons. Yet, as you know 16 year olds can’t vote, drink, or even join the military. In fact, these young people are in some kind of “age limbo” — neither treated fully as adults (except for criminal justice purposes) or as children. For example, most people who work with children are “mandated reporters” — i.e they have to report to the authorities when they witness a child being subject to neglect and abuse. Yet, staff who work with young people in adult jails and prisons are not mandated reporters because the incarcerated children somehow lose their status as children. Maybe you should pursue an advocacy career to change the law and policies regarding the rights of children. We certainly could use your good thinking in the work.

    best,

    Mishi

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