That's Not Fair! Examining Civil Liberties With the U.S. Supreme Court

9 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Estimated Time
Seven or eight 45-minute sessions
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In this lesson, high school students work in groups to explore the issue of civil liberties by conducting Internet research on related court cases of their choosing. Working in heterogeneous groups allows for social interaction and fun in the learning process, while also promoting positive interdependence and practicing of research skills. To summarize their findings, groups create PowerPoint presentations to share with the class.

From Theory to Practice

  • Use research-proven grouping practices to ensure greater success in a collaborative research project. How research groups are formed may have considerable influence on how the students interact, what they learn, and what they produce.

  • Provide instruction in summarizing prior to having students begin their research. This helps students avoid plagiarism, sharpens their sense of what constitutes a main idea and its significant details, and enhances recall.

  • Make research findings public, rather than something seen only by the teacher. Writing for publication is real writing, even if the audience is the rest of the class.


Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

  • Computers with Internet access

  • PowerPoint software

  • LCD projector (optional)




1. Assign students to read Rights of the Accused or a comparable chapter in their social studies or civics textbooks. You may want to have a discussion with students about this reading before beginning the lesson with the goal of helping students understand the term civil rights.

2. Visit the Supreme Court of the United States website. In particular, you will want to review About the Supreme Court and A Brief Overview of the Supreme Court; you may have students read this last section as well, or may just take notes to share during Session 1.

3. Peruse the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website, as well as the site for your state (e.g., ACLU of Wisconsin). Learn how to navigate through these websites while familiarizing yourself with the different issues that the ACLU deals with around the country.

4. Prepare to review with students some note-taking and summarizing techniques for research. A 10-minute minilesson on two-column note-taking, group summaries, and reading strategies should suffice.

5. If you do not have classroom computers with Internet access, reserve six sessions in your school's computer lab for Sessions 1-6. You will need one computer for every three students. Bookmark the ACLU websites, Dictionary.com, and the Legal Dictionary on the computers your students will be using. Make sure these computers also have PowerPoint software installed on them.

6. Assign students to heterogeneous groups of three. Make a copy of The Essential Questions Worksheet, the U.S. Civil Liberties Project Rubric, and the Group Process Assessment Worksheet for each student in the class.

7. Make preparations for students' presentations by arranging to have access to a computer with PowerPoint and either a large monitor or an LCD projector during Sessions 7 and 8. Invite any guests that you may want to view the final presentations.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Learn research skills by assuming various roles (researcher, writer, technician) while working in heterogeneous groups

  • Develop inquiry skills by using the Internet to select and research a court case dealing with civil liberties

  • Work collaboratively to take notes and develop a thorough discussion of the court case

  • Evaluate the cases they research by discussing the legal implications of the court's decision and forming their own opinions about the cause and outcome of the case

  • Analyze their research findings by summarizing the main details of the selected case

  • Synthesize and present their findings in a collaboratively created PowerPoint presentation that they share orally with an audience

Session 1

1. Introduce the project by giving an overview of the role and function of the U.S. Supreme Court and by talking about the term civil rights and what it means.

2. Explain that students will work collaboratively over the next few days to research a specific court case of their choosing, and present their findings to the class at the end of the unit. The court case should be recent (since 1991) and it should deal with an issue of civil rights.

3. Review with students the note-taking, summarizing, and reading techniques that you have prepared (see Preparation, Step 4).

4. Have students get into the groups you have assigned, and explain that they will rotate through three group roles, as defined below. Ask each student to choose a role to begin.

  • Researcher: finds information for the presentation

  • Writer: takes notes and writes text for the presentation

  • Technician: keeps others on task by watching the clock; also acts as a problem solver for any technical difficulties arising from the computer or printer
Decisions are made by consensus.

5. Introduce the following websites to the class:

  • American Civil Liberties Union
    The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides in-depth information on any number of court cases heard by state and federal courts. Individual ACLU state websites may be helpful as well. Students can use this website to select and research a current civil rights case.

  • Legal Dictionary at FindLaw.com
    Court decisions are often written in "legalese," so students will find this dictionary useful when summarizing their court case. The search feature on FindLaw.com can also aid students in their research.

  • Dictionary.com
    In case the definitions from the Legal Dictionary are still incomprehensible, Dictionary.com will provide students with clear terminology for their presentations.
6. Distribute the U.S. Civil Liberties Project Rubric and review it with students. Tell them they should be sure to save all of their work, including their notes, because you will be evaluating it at the end of the project.

7. After a thorough explanation of requirements, allow students to begin looking for a case to research by clicking on the Issues link on the right of the ACLU homepage and choosing one of the topics from the dropdown menu. There are a wide range of topics to choose from; encourage students to pick one they know little about or that is particularly relevant to current events (e.g., racial justice, immigrants' rights, or free speech).

You want to make sure that each group chooses an appropriate court case for the project. Explain that while they may choose any state or federal court case pertaining to civil liberties, they are more likely to find resources related to cases heard by a federal district court, a state supreme court, or the U.S. Supreme Court.

Your students may be interested in hearing about the following examples of some recent court cases:

  • Cheema v. Chandless (2005)
    A Sikh Indian man imprisoned in San Francisco while seeking asylum in the United States sought the right to wear a religious head covering.

  • Flaherty v. Keystone Oaks School District (2002)
    A Pennsylvania high school was ordered to pay $60,000 to a student who was punished for a private message sent on the Internet.

  • Jones v. City of Los Angeles (2006)
    The ruling in this California case prohibits criminalization of the homeless.
8. If there is any time left over, groups may begin taking notes on their selected cases.

Sessions 2-4

1. Distribute The Essential Questions Worksheet to each group. Provide time for groups to use the Internet to find information on their chosen court cases and answer the questions on the sheet.

2. Have students work on summarizing the court's opinions and comparing them to their own thoughts on the court case. Do they agree or disagree? Do they support the court's decision? Why or why not? Tell the groups that they will be trying to convince an audience that what they feel would be the best outcome for their court case.

3. During each session, visit with each group to make sure that students are taking turns with each role (i.e., writer, researcher, and technician). By the end of the fourth session, each student should have produced at least one page of good notes. Make yourself available also for the many questions that will arise as students research their court cases.

Sessions 5-6

1. With the research completed, it is time for each group to summarize their findings into a presentation for the class. Remind students of the summarizing techniques you reviewed during Session 1.

2. Have students in each group work together to create an informational PowerPoint presentation on their case by gleaning the most important information from each student's notes. Groups can use their creativity to design the presentation, but remind students that they must include the following information:

  • Cover page (students' and teacher's names, class, section, and date)

  • Title page (court case title)

  • Facts of the case (who, what, when, where, why, and how)

  • Students' and court opinions, including any dissention

  • Bibliography
3. Again, visit with each group and make yourself available for questions. Help students differentiate between interesting but extraneous details, and those key informational details that belong on the PowerPoint slides. You should also explain, however, that the extraneous details might make interesting side notes in the oral presentation. Encourage students to keep notes of these types of things to bring up.

Note: Make sure students save their work in an appropriate place. They will need access to the files to present during Sessions 7 and 8.

Session 7-8

1. Have the groups present their PowerPoint presentations. Each student should play an active role in his or her group's presentation. Take notes for assessment purposes during each presentation.

2. Following each presentation, help the group lead a class discussion on their case. What do other students think of the case and its final verdict? How does this case relate to other groups' cases? How has the outcome of the case directly affected any of their lives? How do they think the outcomes might affect them in the future?

3. Have students print out their presentations and complete the Group Process Assessment Worksheet to reflect on their group's work.


Students can write an essay in which they compare several of the cases that were discussed in class or further explain the significance of the decision they presented. They can use the Essay Map tool to plan their writing.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Use the U.S. Civil Liberties Project Rubric to evaluate group projects. You will need the following for each student:


Jasmine Jones
K-12 Teacher
This is a great lesson plan. I made a few changes to it for a class I'm taking on diversity in the classroom. We expanded the possible pool of cases from those heard by US Supreme Court to international incidents of human rights abuses and violations.
Jasmine Jones
K-12 Teacher
This is a great lesson plan. I made a few changes to it for a class I'm taking on diversity in the classroom. We expanded the possible pool of cases from those heard by US Supreme Court to international incidents of human rights abuses and violations.
Jasmine Jones
K-12 Teacher
This is a great lesson plan. I made a few changes to it for a class I'm taking on diversity in the classroom. We expanded the possible pool of cases from those heard by US Supreme Court to international incidents of human rights abuses and violations.

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