New York Times v. United States, better known as the “Pentagon Papers” case, was a decision expanding freedom of the press and limits on the government’s power to interrupt that freedom. President Richard Nixon used his executive authority to prevent the New York Times from publishing top secret documents pertaining to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that the President’s attempt to prevent the publication was a violation of First Amendment protections for press freedom. This lesson has students explore the background of the New York Times v. United States, the arguments made during the case and its legacy.
With the Constitution, the Founding generation created the greatest charter of freedom in the history of the world. However, the Founding generation did not believe that it had a monopoly on constitutional wisdom. Therefore, the founders set out a formal amendment process that allowed later generations to revise our nation’s charter and “form a more perfect Union.” They wrote this process into Article V of the Constitution. Over time, the American people have used this amendment process to transform the Constitution by adding a Bill of Rights, abolishing slavery, promising freedom and equality, and extending the right to vote to women and African Americans. All told, we have ratified 27 constitutional amendments across American history. Learning objectives: Describe the reasons that the Founding generation included a formal process for amending the Constitution;
explain how the Constitution’s amendment process works, and why the founders made it so hard to amend the Constitution; identify the key periods of constitutional change in American history and outline factors that drive successful pushes to amend the Constitution; describe all 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The 14th Amendment wrote the Declaration of Independence’s promise of freedom and equality into the Constitution. Ratified after the Civil War, this amendment transformed the Constitution forever and is at the core of a period that many scholars refer to as our nation’s “Second Founding.” Even so, the 14th Amendment remains the focus of many of today’s most important constitutional debates (and Supreme Court cases). In many ways, the history of the modern Supreme Court is largely a history of modern-day battles over the 14th Amendment’s meaning. So many of the constitutional cases that Americans care about today turn on the 14th Amendment. Learning objectives: Explain why the 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution; identify the core principles in the 14th Amendment’s clauses; summarize how the Supreme Court has interpreted the meaning of the 14th Amendment; evaluate the effect of the 14th Amendment on liberty and equality.
The original Constitution did not specifically protect the right to vote—leaving the issue largely to the states. For much of American history, this right has often been granted to some, but denied to others; however, through a series of amendments to the Constitution, the right to vote has expanded over time. These amendments have protected the voting rights of new groups, including by banning discrimination at the ballot box based on race (15th Amendment) and sex (19th Amendment). They also granted Congress new power to enforce these constitutional guarantees, which Congress has used to pass landmark statutes like the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While state governments continue to play a central role in elections today, these new amendments carved out a new—and important—role for the national government in this important area.
Slavery was embedded into America’s fabric by the time of the framing and ratification of the Constitution. At the Constitutional Convention, the delegates refused to write the word “slavery” or enshrine a “right to property in men” in the Constitution’s text, but they did compromise on the issue of slavery, writing important protections for slaveholders into our nation’s charter. Debates over slavery continued (and increased) in the decades to come, culminating in Abraham Lincoln’s election as America’s first anti-slavery president, Southern secession, and the Civil War. Following this bloody war, the Reconstruction Republicans worked to rebuild our nation on a stronger constitutional foundation, passing our nation’s first civil rights laws and ratifying the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. These amendments ended slavery, wrote the Declaration of Independence’s promise of freedom and equality into the Constitution, and promised to end racial discrimination in voting. Many scholars refer to this key period as America’s “Second Founding.”
The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizures of our person, our house, our papers, and our effects. In many cases, this amendment governs our interactions with the police. Before the government — including police officers — can search your home or seize your property, it needs a good reason. This is the big idea behind the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. The government needs particularized suspicion — a reason that’s specific to each suspect — before it can get a warrant. Broadly speaking, our Constitution says that the police should only be able to invade a person’s rights to privacy, property, or liberty if they have a specific reason to think that the suspect has done something wrong.
The First Amendment protects some of our most cherished rights, including religious liberty, free speech, a free press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition our government for a redress of grievances. Together, these essential rights are connected to the freedom of conscience—protecting our ability to think as we will and speak as we think. As we examine the First Amendment’s text and history, we will explore debates over the First Amendment’s five freedoms, analyze landmark Supreme Court cases, and examine how the First Amendment has been used by groups of all perspectives to promote their vision of a more perfect Union.
Article III of the Constitution establishes the judicial branch of the national government, which is responsible for interpreting the laws. At the highest level, the judicial branch is led by the U.S. Supreme Court, which consists of nine Justices. In the federal system, the lower courts consist of the district courts and the courts of appeals. Federal courts—including the Supreme Court—exercise the power of judicial review. This power gives courts the authority to rule on the constitutionality of laws passed (and actions taken) by the elected branches. The Constitution also promotes the principle of judicial independence—granting federal judges life tenure (meaning that they serve until they die, resign, or are impeached and removed from office). This module will examine the judicial branch and its powers.
LegalTimelines.org is an interactive, educational site designed to teach middle and high school students about the historical evolution of U.S. laws on important contemporary legal issues. The site currently features three timelines that take students through the legal history of suffrage, federalism, and the legal rights of the accused. Each timeline is rich with engaging
Article II of the Constitution establishes the executive branch of the national government, headed by a single President. Article II outlines the method for electing the President, the scope of the President’s powers and duties, and the process of removing one from office. The President’s primary responsibility is to carry out the executive branch’s core function—namely, enforcing the nation’s laws. From the debates over how to structure the Presidency at the Constitutional Convention to modern debates over executive orders, this module will explore the important role of the President in our constitutional system.