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 American history?

Quote by Benjamin Franklin
Quote by Benjamin Franklin

Topics on the Page

Overview of Individual Rights cases

Selected Landmark Cases about the Rights of the Individual

Gay Rights Cases
  • Lawrence and Garner v. Texas

  • Same-Sex Marriage Cases
  • Masterpiece Cakeshop Case

Freedom of Speech Cases

Second Amendment Cases

Overview of Individual Rights Cases

external image 200px-Government_icon.svg.pngSee also AP American Government: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

Emma Goldman addressing a rally at Union Square, New York, May 21, 1916
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 from Supreme Court History: Capitalism and Conflict from PBS.
    • Click here 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!

Students' Rights

First Amendment Rights for Student Protestors

Relevant court cases for teenagers- Supreme Court cases regarding students' rights at school

NPR Podcast about Tinker vs. Des Moines Case, which defined students' rights at school

Webpage and pictures about Burnside v. Byars and Tinker v. Des Moines by the Zinn Education Project

Peter Zenger Case (1735)

US postage stamp, 1958
US postage stamp, 1958

rotating gif.gifFor 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.

For more information on important cases, see Notable First Amendment Court Casesfrom the American Library Association.

external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngThe Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay. Jess Bravin, 2013.

For a perspective on the Roberts Court, see The Real John Roberts Emerges the New York Times, June 30, 2013.

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 12.47.12 PM.pngSelected Landmark Cases about the Rights of the Individual

Newseum's Five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment
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.

See 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

external image 200px-Gay_flag.svg.pngGay Rights Cases

A Brief History of Gay Rights at the Supreme Court, FiveThirtyEight blog (June 26, 2015)

Noteworthy Court Cases that have Furthered Equal Rights for LGBTQ Americans, from Human Rights Campaign

Lawrence and Garner v. Texas

external image Oblique_facade_1%2C_US_Supreme_Court.jpgLawrence and Garner v. Texas (2003) This decision overturned a Texas statute outlawing sexual conduct between two members of the same sex.

external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngSee 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.

Same-Sex Marriage

1993 Baehr v. Miike (originally Baehr v. Lewin): Hawaii’s high court issues first-of-a-kind ruling that a barrier to marriage is discrimination, launching the freedom to marry movement.

external image ss-kennedy-1024x576.jpg

Goodridge v. Massachusetts Department of Public Health (2003). Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage.
Link here for a John Oliver clip about how this case affected the spread of gay marriage to other realms

Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). 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.

See also, 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

Link here for an article about Donald Trump's position of LGBT Rights

Masterpiece Cakeshop Case

external image gay-cake.jpg?fit=810%2C500
Drawing a Line in the Gay Wedding Cake Case, New York Times (November 27, 2017)
  • Case involves a baker who refused to make a gay couple's wedding cake saying it violated his religious beliefs protected under the free speech clauses of the First Amendment

Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civll Rights Commission

Colorado Court Rules Bakery Illegally Discriminated Against Gay Couple, ACLU Blog

Women's Rights Cases

Timeline of Major Supreme Court Cases for Women's Rights

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.

Multimedia.pngFreedom of Speech Key Court Cases from First Amendment Schools. Also includes key cases for freedom of religious liberty, press, assembly and petition.

Viewing Loyalty and Sedition during World War I Through Multiple Perspectives, Library of Congress

primary_sources.PNGSchenck v. United States (1919)
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1924
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".

primary_sources.PNGWhitney v. California (1927)
Louis Brandeis, 1916
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.

Rotating_globe-small.gifJustice 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.

primary_sources.PNGStromberg 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)
Charles Evans Hughes- 11th Chief Justice (1930-1942)

primary_sources.PNGNear 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."

primary_sources.PNGBrandenburg v. Ohio (1969)
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)

external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngThe 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."

external image Beautiful_red_apple.jpgThe "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.

external image Red_apple.jpgBoard of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico (1982).

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 (SlaughterHouse 5), Richard Wright (Black Boy) and many others.

primary_sources.PNGTexas v. Johnson (1989)
Justice William Brennan, 1976
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."

primary_sources.PNGReno 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."

primary_sources.PNGCitizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) This case ended limits corporations and unions can spend on elections.

Image from Brennan Center for Justice
Image from Brennan Center for Justice

Second Amendment Cases

How the Court Has Historically Ruled on Gun Control

Supreme Court Cases on the Right to Keep and Bear Arms

District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 3.55.03 PM.pngIs the Second Amendment a Collective Right for Militias or an Individual Right for People to Possess Firearms?

Machine Guns & 50 Caliber, from Giffords Law Center

Question After Orlando: Are Assault Rifles Banned? No, Only Fully Automatic are Basically Prohibited, Politifact (June 20, 2016)