What Are My Rights?

An opinion piece on the ways in which legislation isn’t accessible and why it should be.

What Are My Rights?

Nicole Perry

In order to claim that people have a strong foundation of rights, it is important that people know their rights and know the laws that affect them. However, for anyone who has ever tried to read a piece of legislation, it becomes clear that there is a problem: laws are wordy, confusing, and complicated. There are references to other pieces of legislation and if a reader wants to fully understand the law, they have to find the other texts. Laws can span hundreds of pages and they’re difficult to understand. They take a lot of time to read, time that most people don’t have. When people do not understand the laws that govern them and the rights they hold, their power is diminished.

Within laws, vocabulary, grammar, and formatting are all needlessly difficult. In legal texts, “section” can mean different things depending on capitalization. There are special formatting procedures and specific requirements for underlines, brackets, and strike-throughs. It gets even more complicated when trying to read a bill, which is not yet a law. As bills are constantly changing, it is important to find the most recent version. It’s even more important for people to understand bills because they likely have opinions on them, whether that’s passing it or not. But if they don’t know what the bill says, how can they advocate for an outcome that benefits them?

Secondary sources are an alternative to time-consuming readings. News on TV, news articles, radio stations, podcasts. There are a thousand ways to get the news now but it’s not so easy to get the news in an impartial way. News outlets are biased, partisan, and profit off of interest and engagement. Truth rarely feels like a priority of any media company and so the authenticity of all of them has dropped. Even government websites are bound to frame any legislative piece in a way that is supported by the current administration. While Biden is in office, the Biden administration will say only positive things about the laws he helps pass and so it is with every politician and their related websites. But when these sources are the only option, people are fed false or exaggerated information. In the eyes of the media, every aspect of a bill is great or awful or simply ignored. Many people know that the media surrounding them is biased, but they have no other way to get the information they need. This is not a reliable way to understand laws or rights but for most people, it is the only option.

These issues are compounded for anyone who isn’t fluent in English. Particularly, immigrants who speak English as a second language. While government bodies are required to provide translators, there are several obstacles. Perhaps the largest barrier is that most people don’t know it is an option. They won’t request a translator if they don’t know that they can. Fear of deportation is also a large issue. Whether an immigrant is in the country illegally or not, many of them—particularly people of color—are immediately stereotyped as “aliens” and deported or sent to a detainment facility. It’s understandable why an immigrant would not seek out this kind of assistance. But this leads to people who don’t know their rights and if they are detained or deported, then they can’t advocate for the rights that they deserve.

This all begs the question, why are laws like this? Politics have always been designed for the elite, back to the founding of the United States. The framers of the constitution, what could be regarded as the original law of the country, were privileged, wealthy, and highly educated. This status quo has been largely maintained through the centuries as you see the rich dominate politics. There are certainly those that have defied these trends but they are the exception rather than the rule. Those who have had education dedicated to legal studies can understand the language of laws, but that restricts potential politicians to lawyers or those who studied government at a university level. These unofficial “requirements” cement politics as an elitist organization. It is limiting and access to that kind of education is expensive and discriminatory.

Beyond even that, the length and confusing nature of legislation benefit those that write it. It allows those that write the bills to hide irrelevant clauses in them. For example, with a few sentences, a bill focused on climate action could provide an unrelated financial loophole. These extra clauses are called riders. If the bill gets passed, so does the rider. The rider could be hidden well enough that it goes unnoticed. They certainly aren’t noticed by most everyday citizens. To catch a rider, someone has to either find a source that mentions it or read carefully through the text which, again, is largely impractical. When this happens, citizens can’t advocate against something they dislike because they don’t know it’s there. Or they might even be advocating for something they dislike if they support the rest of the bill. Back to the example, someone could support climate reform without realizing that they’re also pushing for a financial change they disagree with. The alternative problem is that the rider is recognized and the bill isn’t passed. If the bill is about climate action and a representative wants to take steps towards improvements, but the bill also has an additional clause about economics the representative doesn’t agree with, they’re stuck. They could pass the bill with the rider, but it is an unfair “compromise.” However, rejecting the bill could mean that crucial steps towards climate action are never taken. It’s a frustrating situation for both the representative and their constituents.

But how has such an issue gone so long unchecked? Unfortunately, this problem is rarely spoken about. It’s easy to claim that laws are accessible because a quick Google search will pull up a bill’s full text. But any translations that exist are difficult to find and the ability to access a law’s text is far from the ability to understand the law. With so many more attention-grabbing problems, the language of laws is hardly an urgent concern to most people. But as more and more people try to immerse themselves in the politics that affect their lives, they will soon come to discover that laws are not written to be understood.