Famous Trials: Civil Liberties in Modern America
Professor Steven Lawson
Spring 2007
TTh 4th Period, Scott 121

Office Hours:  Tuesday 2:30-3:30; Wednesday 2:00-3:00; Thursday 2:30-3:30 (Aresty Center, Milledoler Hall)


This course traces the struggle for civil liberties and civil rights in Modern America. Students will gain an understanding of constitutional protections in the Bill of Rights and of the criminal justice system, but this is not primarily a course in legal history or the law. Rather, this course uses well-known criminal trials and Supreme Court decisions to explore three topics: the battle for free speech, legal questions concerned with war and national crisis (free speech, espionage, war crimes); and the civil rights and women's rights movements   The course is organized chronologically to tie the cases to the unfolding of 20th- (and 21st-) century American political history. It will cover cases involving the prosecution of anarchists and labor organizers, cases that highlight the black struggle for civil equality; cases arising from Cold War espionage accusations, and cases dealing with war crimes and free speech. I am particularly interested with the way these cases fit in modern American culture, and for that reason, we will show movie dramatizations of several of the cases (and suggest others that students may wish to view).  You must follow the rules laid out in the History Department statement on classroom etiquette; you should consult this before coming to class.

Documentary information, some of which we will use for this course, can be found at the following web site:

An extended biblliography, listing books, web sites, and movies, can be found at:


Course Requirements:

1. Complete the weekly reading assignments (see the schedule that follows) and participate in class discussion. Participation will be factored in to the final grade; reading assignments will be evaluated in papers and exams.

2. Take a mid-term and final examination (the final will cover the material since the mid-term). Note: the final is Wednesday May 11th, the last days of finals, from 12 to 3pm. Each will count approximately 25% of the grade.

3. Write two short essays based on the assigned readings, class discussion, and films. One will be on the Scopes Case (due February 14th); the other on the Rosenberg case (due April 11th). Specific paper assignments will be given out for each. Each will count approximately 20% of the grade; late papers will be lowered a letter grade.

4. Participate in class discussion; participation is expected and graded. Discussion will count 10% of the grade.

Book List for Famous Trials (Spring 2007):

Richard Polenberg, Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech (1987) Cornell University Press.  ISBN: 0-8014-8618-1. 


Jeffrey Moran, The Scopes Trial Bedford Books. ISBN: 0-312-24919-5

Jeanne W. Houston & James D. Houston, Farewell to Manzanar. Random House. ISBN: 0-553-27258-6

Charles Zelden, The Battle for the Ballot. University of Kansas Press, ISBN: 0-7006-1340-4

Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim, Four  Hours in My Lai (1992).  Penguin Group.  ISBN: 014017709.

Philippa Strum, When Nazis Came to Skokie: Freedom for Speech We Hate (1999) University Press of Kansas. ISBN: 0-7006-0941-5.  .


1. Abrams v. United States (1919) Trial and subsequent Supreme Court appeal of immigrant anarchist charged with inciting resistance to the United States war effort in World War I.

2. Sacco and Vanzetti (1920) - Massachusetts trial of immigrant anarchists after WWI for robbery and murder.

3. John Scopes (1925) - Charged with intentionally violating Tennessee law by teaching Darwinian explanation of creation rather than the Biblical story.

4.. Scottsboro (1931-1933) - Trial of nine black youths charged with the rape of two white women in Alabama; case appealed to the Supreme Court as Powell v. Alabama (1932).

4. Japanese Internment Camp Cases (1943-1944) - Cases of Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu; cases  involved the constitutionality of the military orders removing American citizens of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific coast early in WWII and relocating them in internment camps.

6. White Primary Case (1944) The Texas case of Smith v. Allwright, which declared the Democratic white primary unconstitutional and pried open the door to black voting in the South

7. Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg (1951) The couple were convicted of delivering information about the construction of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.

6. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) Cases from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) to the five cases decided in 1954 that overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine in race relations.

7. My Lai Massacre Court Martial (William Calley) (1970) Court martial trial of lieutenant charged with responsibility (war crimes) for killing of Virtnam civilians at My Lai village during the Vietnam War.


8. Skokie (1977) Court fight to prevent a neo-Nazi group from demonstrating in a Chicago, Illinois suburb with a large Jewish population among whom were a significant number of Holocaust survivors.


Class Schedule

Jan. 16 :  Introduction.   

       18      Abrams   Read:  Fighting Faiths, Ch. 1-4.

       23      Abrams.   Read: Fighting Faiths, Ch. 6, 9.

       25       Sacco and Vanzetti

.      30       Film: Sacco and Vanzetti (Director: Guilano Montaldo).
See also: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/SaccoV/SaccoV.htm

Feb.    1      Scopes    Read: The Scopes Trial pp. 1-72

                  See also: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/scopes.htm

            6    Film: Inherit the Wind                
                 Read:    Scopes Trial, pp. 73-170

             8. Film:     Inherit the Wind (cont), pp. 171-214 

             13   Scottsboro

                  See also: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scottsboro/scottsb.htm.

             15    Scottsboro

        20.      Scottsboro (Paper due on Scopes)   

22          White Primary Case (Smith v; Allwright)

         Read: The Battle for the Ballot, pp. 1-67

27            Smith v. Allwright

          Read: Battle for the Ballot, pp. 68-132

Mar.      1    Mid-Term Examination 

6        Japanese Internment

      Film: Rabbit Moon


   20   Japanese Internment

          Read Farewell to Manzanar (entire book)              

           22    Rosenbergs 
                See also: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/rosenb/rosenb.htm

           27   Rosenbergs
                        Film: Unquiet Death of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

           29   Rosenbergs       

      Apr    3  Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas      

                5      Brown v. Board of Education

                10     Brown    Paper #2 Due: Rosenbergs (Website and "Unquiet Death")

                12     Calley

               See also: http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/mylai/mylai.htm.

                Read: Four Hours, pp. 1-141.

                17     Calley     Read: Four Hours, pp. 142-283.

                19     Calley.  Film: Remember My Lai (film adaptation of Four Hours at MyLai)
          Read: Four Hours, pp. 284-378.

                24     Skokie Read: Nazis Came to Skokie, pp. 1-81.  "Film: Skokie: Right or Wrong?"

                26     Skokie Read: Nazis Came to Skokie, pp. 82-149

  : FINAL EXAM, Tuesday, May 8th,  9-11am