Social Studies Help Center
Social Studies help for American History, Economics and AP Government. There are class notes, numerous Supreme Court case summaries and information on how to write a research paper inside.

How has the Burger/Rehnquist Court effected the issue of rights in America?

Just as the Warren court had sought to define the protections of fundamental rights, so did the two Chief Justices after him; Warren Berger and William Rehnquist. The Berger and Rehnquist courts have also issued landmark decisions that have shaped our democracy.

NY Times v United States - 1971 - Freedom of the Press

The New York Times received secret info about the US involvement in the Vietnam War, specifically what had "really" happened at the Gulf of Tonkin. It turned out that the President had exaggerated the incident and used that exaggeration to gain increased war powers form congress (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution). The New York Times sought to publish the information and the government attempted to get an injunction barring them from going to press with it. The Times sued claiming that the government was infringing upon their first amendment right of freedom of speech. The government claimed that a limitation of that right was in order because it was dangerous to the security of the nation.

The court affirmed the position of the New York Times. The court ruled that the information did not represent a clear and present danger to national security and that the governments attempt to suppress the information was an attempt at censorship and a violation of first amendment rights to freedom of the press.

United States v. Nixon - 1972 - Prsidential Priviledge

In the late 1970's, the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C., was broken into. The investigation that followed centered on staff members of then Republican President Richard M. Nixon. The Special Prosecutor subpoenaed certain tapes and documents of specific meetings held in the White House. The President's lawyer sought to deny the subpoena. The Special Prosecutor asked the Supreme Court of the United States to hear the case before the lower appeals court ruled on the President's appeal to deny the subpoena.

By an 8­0 vote, the Court decided that President Nixon must hand over the specific tapes and documents to the Special Prosecutor. Presidential power is not above the law. It cannot protect evidence that may be used in a criminal trial.

Bakke v University of California Bored of Regents - 1976 - Civil Rights

Alan Bakke, an engineer with high grades, applied to several medical schools in the hopes of one day becoming a doctor. Bakke was rejected by all of the schools he applied to but the University of California at Davis encouraged him to apply again. The next year Bakke again applied and was again rejected. Bakke then found out that the University's affirmative action program reserved 17 places for minority candidates regardless of qualifications. Bakke sued the University claiming that he was the victim of "reverse discrimination." The university argued that the creation of quotas was needed to ensure minority admission to college under their affirmative action program.

In a two part ruling the court ordered Bakke to be admitted to medical school. The court ruled that Bakke had, in fact, been discriminated against. The court did, however, uphold the legality of affirmative action programs. The court cited Harvard Universities affirmative action program that created guidelines for admission rather than strict quotas.

Island Trees School District v. Pico - 1982 - Freedom of Speech

The Board of Education of the Island Trees School District in New York directed the removal of nine books from the libraries of the Island Trees senior and junior high schools because in the Board's opinion the books were "anti­American, anti­Christian, anti­Semitic, and just plain filthy." Some books included were: The Fixer, Soulon Ice, Slaughterhouse Five, Go AskAlice, The Best Stories by Negro Writers, and others. Four students from the high school and one from the junior high school sued the school district, claiming that the removal of the books was a violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of the students, saying that the books were not required reading. According to Justice Brennan, who cited West Virginia Board of Education v. Bamette, 319 U.S.624 (1943), "Local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in these books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion." He also cited Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 393 U.S.503 (1969), saying that high school students have First Amendment rights in the classroom. Although the schools have a right to determine the content of their libraries, they may not interfere with a student's right to learn. Therefore, the schools may not control their libraries in a manner that results in a narrow, partisan view of certain matters of opinion. The Court stood against the removal or suppression of ideas in schools.

New Jersey v T.L.O - 1985 - Search and Seizure / Students Rights

Two students were found smoking in the girls bathroom. One student confessed but the other, T.L.O. (her initials), denied smoking. In fact, T.L.O. claimed she did not smoke at all. The school Assistant Principal then proceeded to search T.L.O.'s purse. In the purse he found Marijuana in small bags, rolling paper, a large amount of cash and a list of names who owed T.L.O. money. The police were summoned and T.L.O. was arrested. T.L.O. was convicted and through the appeals process the case eventually went to the Supreme Court. T.L.O. claimed that the search of her purse violated her Constitutional rights.

The Court ruled against T.L.O. setting new standards for school officials. The Court ruled that school officials may search a student under "reasonable suspicion." The standard is less than that required of police therefore giving school officials much broader search powers under the fourth amendment.

Bethel School District v Fraser - 1986 -Free Speech / Students Rights

Matthew Fraser, a high school student in Bethel, Washington, delivered a speech nominating a fellow student for a student elective office. The speech was made during school hours as a part of a school-sponsored educational program in self-government. The voluntary assembly was attended by about 600 students, many of whom were 14-year-olds. Throughout the speech, the student deliberately referred to his candidate in terms of an elaborate and explicit sexual metaphor. The reactions of the students varied from enthusiastic hooting and yelling to embarrassment and bewilderment. Before the speech, the student had discussed it with several teachers, and two teachers told him they thought it was not appropriate. The student was suspended for three days for having violated the school's "disruptive conduct" rule, which prohibited conduct that substantially interfered with the educational process, including the use of obscene, profane language or gestures.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the school board acted entirely within its permissible authority in punishing Fraser for "his offensively lewd and indecent speech." This was not a situation where Fraser was sanctioned for expressing a political viewpoint as in the Tinker "armband" case; the sexual innuendo was incidental to the merits of the candidate who was being nominated. "It is a highly appropriate function of public school education to prohibit the use of vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse . . . Schools must teach by example the shared values of a civilized social order."

The Court repeated its recognition of an interest in protecting minors from exposure to vulgar and offensive spoken language. Even in a heated political discourse among adults, the Court emphasized the need for consideration for the personal sensibilities of the audience. "A high school assembly or classroom is no place for a sexually explicit monologue directed towards an unsuspecting audience of teenage students." The Court also stated that the school regulation and the negative reactions of two teachers gave Fraser sufficient notice that his speech might result in his suspension.

Roe v Wade - 1973 - Right To Privacy

Norma McCorvey, a citizen of Texas, was pregnant and wanted to have an abortion. Texas state laws (and most other states) made abortion illegal in that state. Suing under the name Jane Roe she claimed that the state of Texas violated her right to privacy by prohibiting the abortion and telling her what to do with her own body. The state argued that abortion was murder and that there was a compelling state interest in protecting the life of the unborn child.

In this landmark decision the Court declared that laws prohibiting abortion represented a violation of a women's right to privacy. While the right to privacy does to exist as such in the Constitution it has long been interpreted to exist as an umbrella created by the first 5 amendments in the Bill of Rights. By creating this precedent abortion became legal in all 50 states.

Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier - 1988 - Censorship/State Rights v. Students' Free Press Rights

Kathy Kuhimeier and two other journalism students wrote articles on pregnancy and divorce for their school newspaper. Their teacher submitted page proofs to the principal for approval. The principal objected to the articles because he felt that the students described in the article on pregnancy, although not named, could be identified, and the father discussed in the article on divorce was not allowed to respond to the derogatory article. The principal also said that the language used was not appropriate for younger students. When the newspaper was printed, two pages containing the articles in question as well as four otherarticles approved by the principal were deleted.

The Supreme Court of the United States held that the Hazelwood School District did not violate the First Amendment right of the students. The Court ruled that School officials need not tolerate speech which is inconsistent with the school's basic educational mission. The Court distinguished this case from the Tinker decision (school officials could not punish students for wearing armbands in protest of the Vietnam war "students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate") because the Tinker case involved a student's personal expression. This was, instead, a school newspaper, and as such could reasonably be perceived to bear the "imprimatur" of the school. They justified this because the publication of Spectrum was a part of the curriculum, i.e., it was in the curriculum guide as a part of the Journalism course, it was taught during school hours by a faculty member, the students received grades and academic credit, the faculty advisor exercised control over the publication, and the principal had to review it. The school's policies did not reflect an intent to expand the students' rights by converting a curricular newspaper into a public forum. The court further added that the principal's fears were reasonable: he was concerned that the students' identities could not be assured, that the privacy interests of boyfriends and parents were not adequately protected, and that parents mentioned in the divorce article were not given an opportunity to defend themselves.

Texas v. Johnson - 1989 - Freedom of Speech

Outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas, a protest of Ronald Reagan's policies had been organized, during which a United States flag was burned. Johnson, the man responsible for the flag burning, was arrested under Texas law, which made the desecration of the United States or Texas flags crimes. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to one year in jail and a two thousand dollar fine. Texas reasoned that the police were preventing the breach of peace that would be erupt due to the flagburning, and preserving the integrity of the flag as a symbol of national unity. Johnson's conviction was overturned by theSupreme Court of Texas, which ruled that this mode of self-expression was protected under the First Amendment to theConstitution. The Supreme Court upheld this ruling, stating the flag burning was "expressive conduct" because it was an attemptto "convey a particularized message."


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