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Civil Liberties

John Finn • Wednesday, 6:30-9 p.m.

  Civil Liberties is designed to introduce students to a uniquely American, and to some ways of thinking, a wonderfully naive contribution to politics: The written specification of individual liberties and rights that citizens possess and can juridically enforce against the state. Civil Liberties is not, however, a course on law. It is instead a course on political science about law, or a course that has as its subject the relationship of law to the must fundamental sorts of questions about politics.

During the semester, we shall see that most of the serious difficulties (and there are many) in the politics of civil liberties arise from conflicts between our commitments to two or more positive values. There are, for example, inevitable and recurrent conflicts (despite our attempts to ignore them) between the values of liberty and equality. As Felix Frankfurter once wrote, these and other such conflicts are "what the Greeks thousands of years ago recognized as a tragic issue, namely the clash of rights, not the clash of wrongs." In this course, we examine these clashes in light of the broader philosophical and institutional problems of the constitutional order. I hope to show that constitutional "answers" to problems like those of abortion, freedom of speech, and affirmative action require a coherent understanding of the Constitution, and of the assumptions it makes about human nature and the proper ends of government and civil society.

We will, therefore, examine the doctrinal development of specific liberties and rights, such as due process and privacy, but we shall consider them in a broader theoretical context. We shall want to know what overall conception of liberties, rights, and governmental powers most nearly reflects and promotes our best understanding of the Constitution and the polity it both constitutes and envisions. In addressing these issues we will confront a welter of difficult and controversial questions. It is unlikely that we will succeed in our attempts to answer them fully or finally. What we can hope to achieve, however, is an improved and more sophisticated appreciation of the importance (or not) of our commitment to civil liberties, and of the sacrifices we must make if we choose to honor that commitment.

Reading Cases in Civil Liberties

Reading court cases is, for most of you, a new experience. Unfortunately, it is not often (at least initially) a very pleasant experience. You may find the reading easier if you bear in mind the following inquiries:

a. SUBSTANCE. What is the "law" after the case was decided? What is the holding of the judges in the case? Is it consistent with prior cases? How does the case fit into the "doctrine" on this subject matter?

b. ASSUMPTIONS. What assumptions does the opinion make to support its argument? What does it assume, for example, about the Constitution? About human nature? About the framers? Are these assumptions consistent with the rest of the argument? Where is the reasoning deficient, unsupported, or implausible?

c. HISTORY. It is quite possible to see judicial opinions as political artifacts, as "period pieces" that value ideas quaintly idealistic or long since tarnished. Is history a relevant source of constitutional meaning?

d. JUDICIAL ROLES. Almost every significant case in civil liberties must come to terms with questions about the proper role of the judiciary in a constitutional democracy. As we shall see throughout the course, questions about relative institutional competencies are central to a complete understanding of the constitutional order.

e. POLITICAL THEORY. Serious controversies in civil liberties require of judges that they possess a conception of nature of the American political system and the importance of civil liberties to that system. Is that conception--whether explicit or implicit--consistent with the result in the case? Is it coherent? Is it desirable?

Books to Purchase


The primary text for this course is Kommers, Finn & Jacobson, American Constitutional Law:  Essays, Cases, & Comparative Notes, 2nd ed. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). Unfortunately, the book will not arrive at Broad Street Books until sometime in February. You may purchase it then, if you wish. In the meantime, the chapters we will use are available at the following website--you may download & print the chapters at your convenience:

In addition, please purchase or download: Hamilton et al., The Federalist Papers. Any edition.


van Geel, Understanding Supreme Court Opinions, 2nd edition.

Schedule of Papers

There are two short (4-6 pages) papers required in this course. I will distribute the first paper topic in class on February 11.

The paper will be due in class on March 10. I will distribute the second paper topic in class on March 31. It will be due in class on April 14.

Examinations and Grading

Each short paper is worth 25% of your course grade.

There will be a final examination at a time and place to be determined by the  Registrar's Office. The final examination is worth 30% of your course grade.

Class participation is worth 20% of your course grade.

Lecture Topics and Assignments

January 28 Introduction & Administrative

Assigned: The Constitution of the United States of America

February 4 Interpreting the Constitution

KFJ, chapters 1 & 2
Bork, "Tradition & Morality in Constitutional Law
Brennan, "The Constitution: Contemporary Ratification"

February 11 The Rise of Judicial Power

KFJ, chapter 3

Arkes, Beyond the Constititution
Burgess, The Contest for Authority
Snowiss, Judicial Review and the Law of the Constitution
Fisher, Constitutional Dialogues

February 18 The Bill of Rights & Incorporation

KFJ, chapter 9

Richard Cortner, The Supreme Court and the Bill of Rights
Charles Fairman, "Does the Fourteenth Amendment Incorporate the Bill of Rights?"
Michael Curtis, No State Shall Abridge

February 25 Liberty and the Once (and Future?) Right to Property

KFJ, chapter 10

Epstein, Takings
Horwitz, The Transformation of American Law
Ackerman, Property & the Constitution
MacPherson, "Human Rights as Property Rights"
Siegen, Economic Liberties & the Constitution

March 3 The Right to Privacy

KFJ, chapter 11

Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously
Grey, "Eros, Civilization, and the Burger Court"
Ely, "The Wages of Crying Wolf: Roe v. Wade"
Glendon, Abortion & Divorce in Western Law
Allen, Uneasy Access: Privacy for Women
Brill, Nobody's Business
Dworkin, Life's Dominion
Garrow, Liberty & Sexuality

March 24 Freedom of Speech, I

KFJ, chapter 12

Fish, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech
Schauer, Free Speech
Bollinger, The Tolerant Society
Levy, Emergence of a Free Press
Shiffrin, The First Amendment, Democracy, and Romance
Greenawalt, Fighting Words

March 31 Freedom of Speech, II

KFJ, chapter 12 (continued)

Meiklejohn, Free Speech & Its Relations to Self-Government
Davis, Decisions & Images

April 7 The Religion Clauses, I

KFJ, chapter 13

Locke, Letter on Toleration
Choper, Securing Religious Liberty
Howe, The Garden & the Wilderness
Carter, The Culture of Disbelief
Levy, The Religion Clauses
Richards, Toleration & the Constitution
Smith, Foreordained Failure

April 14 The Religion Clauses, II

KFJ, chapter 13 (continued)

April 21 The Equal Protection Clause - Race

KFJ, chapter 14

Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously
Fiss, "Groups & the Equal Protection Clause"
Kluger, Simple Justice
Gunther, "In Search of an Evolving Doctrine"
Ely, "The Constitutionality of Reverse Discrimination"

April 28 The Equal Protection Clause - Gender

KFJ, chapter 15

Baer, The Fourteenth Amendment
VanBurkleo, "Belonging to the World"

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