This is the eighth in a series of posts about the United States Constitution written in everyday language with a minimum of legal jargon.
Previous posts introduced the Constitution, rebutted some commonly held myths about the Constitution, addressed the Equal Protection Clause, considered free speech and hate speech and discussed procedural and substantive due process.
This post deals with the important concept of state action. Non-lawyers should understand that private persons cannot violate another’s equal protection, due process or, say, 1st or 4th Amendment rights. Only governments can.
The term “state action” stems from the language of section 1 of the 14th Amendment which provides in relevant part that states (including local governments) must treat people equally and fairly (equal protection) and must not deprive them of basic rights (due process, which includes most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights through a process called “incorporation”).
This means that I personally, as a private person, cannot violate your constitutional rights, at least those based on the 14th Amendment. Some governmental involvement is required. For example, if I punch you because I disagree with your views, I may have violated state law but not the 1st Amendment. On the other hand, if a police officers arrests you because of what you said, that arrest is state action and may turn out to violate your 1st Amendment rights.