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The 3 tabs below each provide different information about the course. Read individually and/or print the set together using the icon above.

Liberty feels like a good thing, like apple pie and motherhood. And, by itself, personal liberty certainly recognizes the moral value of individuals and their human right to live their lives as they wish—up to the point that they interfere with other people’s legitimate rights.

But does individual liberty always trump the benefits to society of sometimes restricting that individual freedom? And are the values and interests of people who feel that other people are interfering with their own life or are behaving in ways that damage society always to be disregarded?

Even in cases where it seems that the “good guy’s” liberty is being interfered with by social convention or public law, it is important to see how the other side views the situation as well. The challenge in this course will be to confront the lecturer’s presentation of the problem as one of unfair interference with people’s liberty. We may, in the end, come down on the side of wanting to defend the “good guy’s” liberty. But it’s worthwhile to challenge us to see the other point of view as well.

This course will be largely based on a series of Great Courses lectures called “Liberty on Trial in America: Cases That Defined Freedom.” The lecturer is Douglas Linder, a popular professor of law at a non-elite law school, the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Many Shared Learning participants know him from another Great Courses lecture series, “The Great Trials of World History.”

The lectures are promoted as focusing on “trials,” just as his other course did. But in fact the presentation covers the social conflicts that led up to a judicial event and the critical judicial event was more often a decision by a court, usually the U.S. Supreme Court, rather than by a jury.

Each week, we will view and discuss in detail one (and sometimes two) of the 24 lectures in this series, ranging historically from the pre-Civil War period to the 21st century. In addition, as time permits, we will view a second lecture as well. The course outline in the next tab provides the details.

A class website will enable people to discuss further what we have viewed and the opinions we have expressed in class.

Subject to change!

  • Sept. 15: The Trial of John Brown—violent acts in pursuit of freeing American slaves. [If time permits, also viewing the trial of John Peter Zenger, a newspaper publisher in colonial times.]
  • Sept. 22: The Trial of Susan B. Anthony—society’s treatment of women as incapable of participating in democracy. [If time permits, the viewing of the trumped up prosecution of labor protesters, known as the Haymarket Eight.]
  • Sept. 29: The Scopes Trial—conventional religious belief vs. a science teacher’s right to teach evolution. [If time permits, the viewing of a trial about racial discrimination in the right to kill to defend one’s home.]
  • Oct. 6: We’ll try to have time to view and discuss two cases: whether religious objections to saluting the flag and reciting the pledge of allegiance are defensible; and whether citizens of Japanese origin could be relocated against their will during the Second World War.

I’ll provide more detail on the rest of the cases, but for now here are the topics:

  • Oct. 13: School segregation by race from Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Plus, if time permits, “The Trial of Lenny Bruce”—obscenity.
  • Oct. 20: Two lectures with time split evenly: The Loving case—the illegality of a racially mixed marriage. And did the Amish people have a right to their own concept of education.
  • Oct. 27: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Possibly include the lecture on the legality of the death penalty.
  • Nov. 3: The cases around abortion rights leading to Roe v. Wade. If time permits, cases about sodomy.
  • Nov. 10: Religious and white racist objections to governmental interference in private life, made more complex by the violent nature of their acts, leading to the standoff (and deaths) at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
  • Nov. 17: Dr. Jack Kevorkian and the right to die.
  • Nov. 24: Thanksgiving break
  • Dec. 1: The Boy Scouts prohibition of gay scout leaders. If time, a debate about eminent domain—the right of local governments to take over private land (with compensation).
  • Dec. 8: The Citizens United case: do corporations, as legal entities, have the right to make large political contributions?
  • Dec. 15: Class decides—what was skipped or passed over too quickly.