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Analyze and evaluate decisions about rights of individuals in landmark cases of the United States Supreme Court
Focus Question: How has the Supreme Court interpreted the rights of individuals during the 20th century?
Topics on the Page
Selected Landmark Cases
Gay Rights Cases
Freedom of Speech Cases
See also AP American Government:
Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
Emma Goldman addressing a rally at Union Square, New York, May 21, 1916
For an interactive quiz on Supreme Court decisions, see
Talking About My Constitution
Supreme Court History: Capitalism and Conflict
to play iCivics, a fun game where students can learn about the Amendments, create their own law firm, pass new laws, or run for President! The website also has resources for teachers and lesson plans!
For background on the
Peter Zenger Case (1735)
a historic freedom of speech decision, from the Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York. See also
For more information on important cases, see
Notable First Amendment Court Cases
from the American Library Association.
The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay
Jess Bravin, 2013.
For a perspective on the Roberts Court, see
The Real John Roberts Emerges
from the New York Times, June 30, 2013.
Selected Landmark Cases about the Rights of the Individual
Newseum's Five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment
Schenck v. U.S.
Criticism of the Draft is not protected by the First Amendment when it poses a clear and present danger to the government
Abrams v. U.S.
In this case the defendants were convicted on the basis of two leaflets they printed and threw from windows of a building in New York City. One leaflet, signed "revolutionists", denounced the sending of American troops to Russia. The second leaflet, written in Yiddish, denounced the war and US efforts to impede the Russian Revolution and advocated the cessation of the production of weapons to be used against Soviet Russia.
The Most Powerful Dissent in American History
for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes defense of free speech
Whitney v. California
States can Prohibit Speech That May Incite Criminal Activity
Stromberg v. California
State cannot Infringe on First Amendment Right to Speech and Expression
Near v. Minnesota
State cannot Prohibit Malicious and Defamatory Content from Newspapers
Loving v. Virginia
Invalidated a Virginia state law prohibiting interracial marriages
Brandenburg v. Ohio
State cannot Broadly Prohibit Speech and Expression
Texas v. Johnson
Flag Burning is a Form of Protected Speech and Expression
Tinker v. Des Monies
Administrators cannot Ban Protest in Schools
For more, see
Landmark Ruling on Behalf of Student Expression
from the American Civil Liberties Union
Reno v. ACLU
Court ruled Against Vague Content Bans on Free Speech
Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier
High School Student Newspapers are Subject to a Lower Level of First Amendment Rights
Olmstead v. LC and EW
Affirmed an integration mandate for individuals with disabilities holding that services must be provided "in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of an individual
Lawrence v. Texas
Declared unconstitutional a Texas law prohibiting sexual acts between same sex couples, expanding privacy rights of all Americans
Hamdan v. Rumsfeld
Imposed legal constraints of the Bush administration's program for trying alleged terrorists by military commissions.
Safford Unified School District v. Redding
Ruled school officials violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old Arizona girl when they strip searched her based on a classmate's uncorroborated accusation.
Obergefell v. Hodges
Supreme Court declares same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states.
For more see
case overview from the ACLU
Gay Rights Cases
Lawrence and Garner v. Texas (2003)
This decision overturned a Texas statute outlawing sexual conduct between two members of the same sex.
see the following overview of the case
See also the book,
Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas--How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans
. Dale Carpenter, W. W. Norton, 2012.
Click here for more information on a
right to privacy
under the Constitution.
For other cases, see
The Gay Rights Controversy
from the University of Missouri Kansas City. This site includes an updated map of states recognizing same-sex marriage.
Obergefell v. Hodges
The court held that the fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawful ly licensed and performed out-of-State .
U.S. v Windsor (2013)
. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Court held that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) deprived same-sex couples of their 5th Amendment rights for equal protection under federal law.
Same-Sex Marriage, Around the World
for countries that have legalized gay marriage (from NPR, June 27, 2013).
Same-Sex Marriage: Landmark Decisions and Precedents
from The New York Times, June 26, 2015
Freedom of Speech Cases
For an review of freedom of speech cases in the 20th century, see
ACLU History page
at the American Civil Liberties Union website.
Freedom of Speech Key Court Cases
from First Amendment Schools. Also includes key cases for freedom of religious liberty, press, assembly and petition.
Schenck v. United States (1919)
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1924
In this case Schenck mailed pamphlets to draftees claiming the draft and the war was wrong. He claimed that the war was motivated by the capitalist system. Schenck was charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act and attempting to obstruct recruitment while encouraging insubordination. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes ruled that the First Amendment did not protect Schenck in this situation because it created a situation of
"clear and present danger".
Whitney v. California (1927
Louis Brandeis, 1916
In this case, the defendant, who had joined the Communist Labor Party of California, was convicted of "criminal syndicalism," a broad category of actions defined as willfully doing damage, causing harm, and using unlawful means to achieve political change. The Court, using the "clear and present danger test," upheld the conviction.
Justice Louis D.
Brandeis wrote a famous opinion
, defending freedom of speech and stating that there can be no clear and present danger from unpopular ideas if there is opportunity for full and open discussion of those ideas. Freedom of speech, he held, is a core of a democratic society.
Stromberg v. California (1931)
The defendant in this freedom of speech case was charged with "displaying a red flag in a public place or in a meeting place(a) "as a sign, symbol or emblem of opposition to organized government" or (b) "as an invitation or stimulus to anarchistic action" or (c) "as an aid to propaganda that is of a seditious character." The defendant's lawyers tried cited Justice Holmes'
"Clear and Present Danger"
, claiming that the circumstances of the incident must be considered in the court's ruling. The Court held that the law was "so vague and indefinite" that it was "repugnant to the guaranty of liberty contained in the 14th Amendment.
Charles Evans Hughes- 11th Chief Justice (1930-1942)
Near v. Minnesota (1931)
In this freedom of the press case, the Court overturned Near's conviction for publishing a "malicious, scandalous, and defamatory" newspaper, thereby establishing "a constitutional principle the doctrine that, with some narrow exceptions, the government could not censor or otherwise prohibit a publication in advance, even though the communication might be punishable after publication in a criminal or other proceeding."
Brandenburg v. Ohio
The court overturned the conviction of a Klu Klux Klan leader who had been prosecuted for advocating violence, terrorism, and other unlawful means as well as urging groups to act in an unlawful manner. The court concluded that "Neither the indictment nor the trial judge's instructions refined the statute's definition of the crime in terms of mere advocacy not distinguished from incitement to imminent lawless action."
This case overturned past rulings in: Schenck v. U.S. (1919)
The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His MInd—and Changed the History of Free Speech in America
. Thomas Healy, 2013. Holmes wrote that all speech was protected by the First Amendment "unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country."
The "Clear and Present Danger" Test
offers lesson plans for teaching about World War I era First Amendment cases involving subversive advocacy.
Dennis v. U.S. (1951)
In 1948, the leaders of the Communist Party of America were arrested and charged with violating provisions of the Smith Act. The Act made it unlawful to knowingly conspire to teach and advocate the overthrow or destruction of the United States government. Party leaders were found guilty and lower courts upheld the conviction.
Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico
The Court, by a 5 to 4 vote, held that school officials cannot remove books from a school library because they find the books objectionable. At issue were books by Kurt Vonnegut (
), Richard Wright (
) and many others.
Texas v. Johnson (1989)
Justice William Brennan, 1976
In this case involving a protester who burned an American flag, the Court decided in a 5 to 4 decision that the constitutional protection of freedom of speech extends beyond the spoken or written word. Thus, the flag burning protester cannot be prosecuted for his actions. As Justice William Brennan wrote:
"To conclude that the government may permit designated symbols to be used to communicate only a limited set of messages would be to enter territory having no discernible or defensible boundaries
Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997)
The first Internet-connected Supreme Court case, the justices concluded that provisions of the Communications Decency Act banning sexually explicit materials online in order to protect children "effectively suppresses speech adults have a right to receive and address to one another."
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)
This case ended limits corporations and unions can spend on elections.
Women Justices of the Supreme Court
Sandra Day O'Connor.
See her entry in Influential Women in American History
Ruth Bader Ginsburg. See her entry in
Influential Women in American History
111th Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor
In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Sonya Sotomayor as the 111th Supreme Court Justice. She is the court's first Hispanic and third female justice. In 2010,
"nation's high court likely would be asked again to weigh issues of national security versus free speech because of the recently leaked classified war documents posted on the WikiLeaks website."
112th Supreme Court Justice, Elena Kagan
In 2010, President Barack Obama nominated Elena Kagan as the 112 Supreme Court Justice. Kagan is a
First Amendment Scholar
who has written several journal articles on the free speech right.
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