5.6

Significant Supreme Court Decisions

Standard 5.6: Significant Supreme Court Decisions

Research, analyze and report orally or in writing on one area [5.6a, 5.6b, or 5.6c below] in which Supreme Court Decisions have made significant changes over time in citizens’ lives. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T5.6]

The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court at Dusk, by Joe Ravi, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

FOCUS QUESTION: How Do Landmark Supreme Court Cases Impact Our Lives?

A landmark case is a case that has an “lasting effect on the application of a certain law, often concerning your individual rights and liberties” (Judicial Learning Center, 2015, para. 2).

Most major issues in United States history have been the subject of a landmark decision by the Supreme Court. In just the past 70 years:

How has the Supreme Court interpreted the rights of individuals in key areas of people's lives? The modules for this topic consider that question in terms of six areas of rights in conflict: the First Amendment, due process, the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance, school prayer, national security and gun control.

    Standard 5.6a: Supreme Court Decisions: First Amendment Rights

    Interpretations of the freedoms of Religion, Assembly, Press, Petition, and Speech under the First Amendment. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T5.6.a.]

    Freedom of Thought Quote
    Freedom of Thought Quote by Benjamin Franklin, by Congressional Quote, licensed under CC BY 2.0 

    1. INVESTIGATE: First Amendment Rights: Selected Landmark Cases

    The First Amendment of the Constitution states; "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." 

    In its interpretations of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has produced far-reaching legal decisions, including:

    Learn more about signficiant Supreme Court decisions at the First Amendment Encyclopedia from Middle Tennessee State University and Supreme Court Decisions on First Amendment Individual Rights

    1.1. UNCOVER: Tinker v. Des Moines and Student Speech in School

    In December 1965, during a period of nationwide protests against the American War in Vietnam, 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker and a group of her junior high school classmates wore black armbands to school to express their opposition to the war.

    Mary Beth Tinker
    Mary Beth Tinker, by Eli Hiller, licenced under CC.BY-SA.2.0

    School administrators told the students to remove the armbands and when the students refused, suspended them. When they returned to school after the holiday break, the students gave up the armbands, wore black for the rest of the year in protest, and took the school all the way to the Supreme Court.

    In 1969, by a 7 to 2 vote, the Supreme Court agreed with the students, declaring in a memorable phrase that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” 

    The Court said school officials could not block wearing armbands as a form of constitutionally protected free speech, unless the actions of students had disrupted the educational process—which they had not. Explore Tinker v. DesMoines (1969) - Landmark Supreme Court Ruling on Behalf of Student Expression. Watch a video, Constitution Hall Pass:  Tinker v. Des Moines from the National Constitution Center.

    The Tinker case invites a wider exploration of the boundaries of student speech in school, as illustrated by a U.S. Court of Appeals decision in Hawk v. Easton Area School District (2013). In the case, two students wore “I <3 Boobies” (I Heart Boobies) bracelets to school to support a local breast cancer awareness campaign. School administrators banned the bracelets as a violation of the school dress code policy that prohibited lewd or vulgar language on clothing. Citing their right to free speech, the students wore the bracelets anyways, were suspended, and their mothers took the school system to court. The Appeals Court overturned the ban, stating that the bracelets were not plainly lewd and because they commented on a social issue, they may be worn in school.

    Learn more at What Can I Say in School? An Examination of Students' Freedom of Speech, National Constitution Center. 

    Media Literacy Connections: Cameras in the Courtroom

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, in April 2020 for the first time in history, the Supreme Court announced it would make publicly available an audio feed of oral arguments between lawyers and the justices being conducted by telephone conference calls. Before that, no audio/video recording, photography, or television/live streaming had been allowed in the Supreme Court's courtroom. Since 1996, a small number of federal courts of appeals and district courts have begun allowing photography and television coverage of oral arguments (SCOTUS blog, April 27, 2020).

    Many lawmakers, lawyers, and members of the public believe cameras and television should be allowed in the Supreme Court and other courtrooms while other people are unwilling to depart from historical precedent. The first bill to allow cameras in federal courts was introduced in 1937. C-Span (Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network) began broadcasting the House of Representatives in 1979 and the Senate in 1986. Presently Congress is considered the Cameras in the Courtroom Act, introduced in 2019 that would permit television coverage of all open sessions of the Supreme Court, unless a mjaority of the Justices voted otherwise in order to protect the rights of those involved in a case.

    Activity 1: Analyze the Implications of Cameras in Courtrooms

    • What are the arguments for and against allowing cameras in the Supreme Court and other courtrooms?
    • What are the arguments for and against televising or live streaming the proceedings of the Supreme Court and other courts as well?
    • How might television coverage, live streaming, real-time audio recordings, and photography in courtrooms impact the Supreme Court's consideration of cases that will have a significant impact on people's lives such as freedom of speech, due process under the law, freedom of religion and the other rights discussed in this standard?
      • Would public opinion be influenced in positive or less positive ways by media coverage?
      • Would judges less impartial and more influenced by media-based public opinions?

    Activity 2: Design a Format for Future Supreme Court TV Coverage

    • Begin by watching C-Span coverage of the House and Senate to see one model for broadcasting the activities on the legislative branch of government. Pay attention to camera angles, audio, captions, and other features of the broadcast.
      • How does C-Span's coverage differ from other televised events such as the Super Bowl, the World Series, the State of the Union address, or the Emmy Awards?
    • How would you design television and live stream coverage of the Court? Would you include:
      • Graphics, sidebars, and scrolls?
      • Hosts and commentators describing the action?
      • Interactive features such as opportunities for viewers to post comments online?

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Create a Poster
      • Design a poster (drawing or digital) that summarizes Student Rights in one or more of the following areas:
        • Speech
        • Privacy
        • Religion
        • Dress Codes
        • Banned Books
        • Drug Testing 

    • Create a Public Service Announcement

    Standard 5.6b: Supreme Court Decisions: Due Process and Equal Protection

    Interpretations of the due process clause and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T5.6.b.]

    Sylvia Mendez
    Sylvia Mendez, by the Office of Senator Kamala Harris and US Department of Agriculture, Public Domain

    2. INVESTIGATE: Due Process and Equal Protection: Mendez v. Westminster (1947)

    Just after the end of World War II, Sylvia Mendez was eight years-old and a student at a racially segregated elementary school in Westminster, California. She wanted to attend a nearby school, but it was reserved for white-only students. Her parents (along with four other Mexican-American families) sued the school district on behalf of the community’s 5,000 Latino and Latina students. In 1946, the plaintiffs won their case in federal court, making it the first time in U.S. history that a school district was told it had to desegregate. Watch here as Sylvia Mendez recalls the time and the lawsuit.

    The Mendez case had enormous implications for civil rights in the country. It preceded the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision by eight years. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall represented both Sylvia Mendez and later Linda Brown in the Brown v. Board of Education case. He used some of the same arguments from the Mendez case to win the Brown decision.

    In the Mendez v. Westminster case, the judge wrote these words challenging the “separate but equal” doctrine established in the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1898:

    The equal protection of the laws’ pertaining to the public school system in California is not provided by furnishing in separate schools the same technical facilities, textbooks and courses of instruction to children of Mexican ancestry that are available to the other public school children regardless of their ancestry. A paramount requisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.

    A national hero, Sylvia Mendez received a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom and in 2018 was awarded the National Hispanic Hero Award. She continues to work for equality and justice for Latinos and all people of color. 

    The Maestas Desegregation Case

    A 1914 case, Francisco Maestas et al. v. George H. Shone, et al., is a little-known forerunner to Sylvia Mendez and her family's fight to end educational segregation of Mexican American children. The case involved a railroad worker Francisco Maestas who was unable to enroll his son in the Alamosa, Colorado public school nearest their home. School officials demanded the boy attend a "Mexican school" with the district's other children of Mexican descent because it was assumed the children needed to learn English - even though most of the children at the school spoke English. The district court judge ruled in favor of the Maestas' family, stating that all English speaking children should be allowed to attend the school closest to their homes. Efforts are underway to build a memorial to the case as a milestone in ending segregation of Mexican children based on language and race (The Most Important School Desgregation Case You've Never Heard Of, National Education Policy Newsletter, July 9, 2020).

    Suggested Learning Activities

    Online Resources for Mendez v. Westminster

    Standard 5.6c: Supreme Court Decisions: Rights in Conflict

    Interpretations in cases where individual rights and perceived or community or national interest were in conflict. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T5.6.c.]

    3. INVESTIGATE: Rights in Conflict: United States Flag and the Pledge of Allegiance

    American Flag
    American Flag, Public Domain

    The 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states of the United States of America. The blue square is officially known as the "union," as all of the states are bound in union. The 13 stripes represent the original 13 British colonies that declared independence from Great Britain.  

    Nicknames for the flag include "The Stars and Stripes," "Old Glory," and the "Star Spangled Banner.” Betsy Ross is popularly assumed to have created the first flag, but there is little historical evidence to indicate who actually made the first flag (Five myths about the American flag). In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the law designating June 14 every year as Flag Day.

    The picture book Long May She Wave: The True Story of Caroline Pickersgill and Her Star-Spangled Creation tells the story of two 13-year-olds (one white and one an African American indentured servant) who along with adults sewed the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner song.

    Pledge of Allegiance
    Pledge of Allegiance, 1899, by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Public Domain

    The American flag and the National Athem are highly contentious issues in contemporary American politics. Although the Supreme Court established in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) that students cannot be required to recite the pledge of allegiance in schools, all states except California, Hawaii, Iowa, Vermont and Wyoming have a rule that there be a regularly scheduled time to recite the pledge. In Alabama, for example, schools are required to “afford all public K–12 students an opportunity each school day to voluntarily recite the pledge of allegiance to the United States flag" (Pledge Law: Controlling Protest and Patriotism in Schools, Teaching Tolerance, May 29, 2019).

    Interestingly, original Pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist and it did not contain the phrase "under God." Bellamy sought to revive patriotism by having school children recite a daily pledge to flag and country.  The Pledge was formally adopted by Congress in 1942, but the phrase "under God" was added in 1954 at the height of the anti-communist Red Scare (learn more: The Gripping Sermon That Got ‘Under God’ Added to the Pledge of Allegiance on Flag Day, Washington Post).

    For many Americans, the national athem is a time-honored, but increasingly less relevant tradition when played at sporting events and other occasions. Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner" in 1814 to commemorate the British shelling of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Today, as one sportswriter put it: "Only 8 million people lived in the United States when Key put ink to paper. What we are left with 206 years later is a poem written in 1814, fitted to a music sheet of the late 1700s, approved by Congress as our anthem in 1931, played routinely at sporting events now for some 350 million Americans to embrace as their hail to country. Clearly, not all of us are able to get our arms around it" (Dupont, 2020).

    Often omitted in discussions about the flag and the anthem are how flags have been used as symbols for political change throughout United States history:

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Design a Flag, Monument, or Memorial for a Cause or an Issue You Care About
        • What would your flag mean to the groups it was created for?

    3.1. ENGAGE: Is Kneeling During the National Anthem an Effective Form of Political Protest?

    In the weeks that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis, Minnesota police officers on May 25, 2020, hundreds of thousands of Americans marched and knelt to speak out against police brutality and systematic racism.

    DONT_KNEEL_ON_ME Flag
    "DONT KNEEL ON ME"by Stateriotismx is licensed under CC0 1.0

    Throughout the rest of 2020, professional and amateur athletes, entertainers, politicians, and everyday citizens continued kneeling at different public events, prompting sharp opposition from then President Donald Trump and his political supporters who sought to portray kneeling as disrespecting the American flag.

    Kneeling also became a form of protest following the January 6, 2021 Insurrection at the Capitol. Then in February, 2021, the president of Bluefield College, a small private Baptist school in southwest Virginia, suspended the players of the school's basketball team for kneeling during the national anthem, causing a forfeit of the game, adding a loss to the team's record, and potentially preventing the team from getting into a post-season tournament (A College Basketball Team Protesting the Capitol Riot. Its President Then Forced It to Forfeit,The Washington Post, February 13, 2021).

    The suspension was a culmination of an ongoing dispute between student athletes and the school administration. Players had knelt previously before games, and had been warned not to do so by the college president who contended that since the players wore the college name on their jerseys they were speaking not just for themselves, but for the college as an institution. For two games, the players remained in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem, to which the college president objected. The president suggested the players kneel before the game's opening tip-off, a proposal that the players rejected. Both sides seemed unable to resolve their differences.

    Do you think the college president's actions violated the students rights or can a private institution impose whatever rules it chooses on expressions of political protest? What is the role of the media in this case; e.g., if the athletes kneeling during the national anthem had not been shared widely on social media, would they have been suspended?

    It is generally accepted that students in public schools cannot be required to say pledge of allegiance or salute the flag, but what are the rights of public school students who wish to engage in political protest by kneeling during the national anthem before games or other school events?

    The Law

    Based on the law as it stands today,

    Recalling the history of protest, the flag and the national anthem is important to understanding these issues. Kneeling is a powerful form of symbolic political speech, and as journalism professor Stephen D. Solomon (2016) has noted, it is part of a long tradition of symbolic political speech that goes back to the American Revolutionary era's use of effigies, pamphlets, songs, cartoons, and liberty trees to express opposition to the British control over the colonies.

    Athletes and Protests

    The recent use of kneeling as a form of political protest during the national anthem began August 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem before a football game. He was demonstrating against discrimination and oppression against African Americans and other minorities (Colin Kaepernick protests anthem over treatment of minorities). 

    There is a long history of professional and amateur athletes speaking out about social issues, including Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Billie Jean King, and Muhammad Ali (Wulf, 2019; Wiggins, 2018). You can learn more about the role of protest in sports history at our Integration of Professional Sports wiki page.

    In recent years, players from the NBA, WNBA, NFL and other sports league have engaged in protests including wearing politically-themed shirts during warm-ups and expressing their views on social media platforms. The Players Coalition, founded in 2017 by former pro football players Anquan Bolden and Malcolm Jenkins, seeks reform in the areas of police and community relations, criminal justice reform and education, and economic advancement for poor people.

    In June 2020, NBA superstar LeBron James together with other Black athletes and entertainers formed More Than A Vote, an organization intended ot promote and protect voting rights in the United States. Finishing the 2019-2020 season in a bubble environment in Orlando, Florida, NBA players wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts and conveyed messages of social justice and outrage against violence toward African Americans on their basketball shoes. 2020 U.S. Open women's tennis champion Naomi Osaka wore seven different masks to her matches to honor Black victims of violence; "I feel like the point is to make people start talking," she said in a post-championship winning interview on ESPN ("Masked or Not, a Superstar Finds Her Eloquent Voice," The New York Times Sports, December 20, 2020).

    As Black Lives Matter protests continued throughout the early summer, the National Football League reversed course and announced it supported players "taking a knee" during the national anthem - NFL Commissioner Says The League Was Wrong To Not Listen To Players About Racism (June 5, 2020).

    Not every sports organization or league welcomes political activism by athletes. In advance of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, the International Olympic Committee issued a ban on political protests at Olympic sites. While athletes are allowed to make statements during press conferences, media appearances, and on digital and traditional media platforms, during events or medal ceremonies, they cannot display any political messaging (including signs or armbands), make gestures of a political nature (like kneeling), and refuse to follow the Ceremonies protocol (IOC Athletes’ Commission, 2020). 

    A famous political protest during the Olympics came at the 1968 Mexico City games by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos who went barefoot on the podium, bowing their heads during the playing of the national anthem while raising a fist with a black glove (see Olympic Athletes Who Took a Stand by Smithsonian Magazine). For their actions, both runners were stripped of their medals, suspended from the team, and banned from the Olympic Village.

    It took 51 years, but Smith and Carlos were inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2019. The official induction citation states Smith and Carlos “courageously” stood up for racial equality (Fung, 2019).

    Political Protest by Tommie Smith
    Political Protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, Public Domain

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Compare and Contrast Protest Policies
      • What are the policies about political protests for the National Football League, the National Basketball Association & Women's National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, NASCAR, National Collegiate Athletic Association, U.S. Soccer Federation, and Major League Soccer?
      • Write a draft Protest Policy for your school.
    • Analyze a Primary Source: "Lift Every Voice and Sing"
      • Listen to gospel and hip hop versions of this poem/song by James Weldon Johnson was performed for the first time on Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1900.
        • Why is this called the "Black National Anthem?"
        • How does the song express values of freedom, justice and equality?
    • Design a Protest-Themed Sneaker or T-Shirt

    Online Resources for the Flag-Related Court Cases

    4. INVESTIGATE: Rights in Conflict: School Prayer

    In the case, Engel v. Vitale (1962), the Supreme Court ruled that requiring prayer in public schools at the start of the day was a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause that prohibits the interconnection of church and state. The state cannot hold prayers in public schools, the Court said, even if participation is not required and the prayer is not tied to a particular religion. Read a summary of the case from PBS American Experience.

    Students Praying

    Students Recite Lord’s Prayer in 1963
    Source: Laister / Stringer

    Religion has always been an area of dispute in United States history. But the founders, and Thomas Jefferson in particular, intended to establish freedom of religion as a core principle of American life and that a wall of separation would exist between religion and government. In 1802, Jefferson wrote: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State” (Letters between Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists).

    While debates over school prayer and religion in schools continue today, religion’s place in United States society has changed quite significantly. While 70% of Americans identify as Christian, nearly one in four adults say they are not affiliated with any religion, while another 5% are members of non-Christian faiths (Religious Landscape Study, Pew Research Center, 2020).

    Suggested Learning Activity

    • Research & Present
      • Select one of the Supreme Court Cases regarding prayer in education from Religious Liberty: Landmark Supreme Court Cases.
      • Research and examine how the Supreme Court decision made a significant change in citizens’ lives.
      • Create a presentation, video, or podcast that informs others about the key discussions and decisions regarding the Court case you selected. 

    Online Resources for School Prayer and Religion Court Cases

    5. INVESTIGATE: Rights in Conflict: National Security

    The U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (widely known as “Gitmo”) was established in 1903 after an American invasion of the island during the Spanish-American War. The land for the base was granted to the United States by the Cuban Constitution of 1902.

    For most of the 20th century, the naval base served as a coaling station, a ship repair facility, a launching point for supplies during World War II, and a hurricane relief distribution center. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the base became a prison for suspected terrorists (Schwab, 2009).

    Camp Delta
    Camp Delta (holding facility for detainees held at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba), Public Domain

    Since 2001, some 780 men from 35 countries have been held at the base. President Barack Obama ordered the detention facilities closed in 2009, although 40 individuals still remain detained at the site (see 40 Current Detainees: The Guantanamo Docket).

    In ordering the closure of the prison, President Obama stated that conditions and practices there were “contrary to our values” (Remarks by the President on Plan to Close the Prison at Guantanamo Bay, February 23, 2016, para. 3). Reporters documented exceedingly harsh enhanced interrogation techniques used there, including solitary confinement, physical mistreatment, and other human rights violations. Detainees have not been afforded constitutional rights to fair trials under the military commission system used at the base.

    Defenders of practices at the facility cite threats to the nation posed by terrorists, asserting that in times of war or national emergency, some rights and liberties for individuals must be suspended to protect the larger national interests.

    Suggested Learning Activity

    6. INVESTIGATE: Rights in Conflict: Gun Control

    Gun Control laws are one of the most bitterly contested issues in the United States today. The statistics related to guns, gun violence, and mass shootings are stark. Americans own nearly half of all the guns in the world.

    There are 33,000 gun deaths every year, of which two-thirds are suicides. 85% of suicide victims are males. The remaining gun deaths are homicides (assaults by people and shootings by police officers). In two-thirds of these cases, the victims are young black males. You can explore the data using an Interactive Graphic of Gun Death in America.

    Flag of Bureau of ATF

    Current Flag of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)
    Image on Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

    The United States is experiencing an alarming number of mass shootings. As of 2019, there have been 114 mass shootings in the past four decades and most of the shooters got the guns they used legally (Follman, Aronsen & Pan, 2019a). Of the guns used in these shootings, 48 would have been outlawed if there had been a national ban on assault weapons (Follman, Aronsen & Pan, 2019b).

    People across the country are divided as to how to preserve the rights of gun owners while curbing access to rifles, revolvers, shotguns, semi-automatic handguns, assault rifles, and other weapons of war.

    Suggested Learning Activities

    Online Resources for Gun Control Laws and Second Amendment Court Cases

    6.1. ENGAGE: What Steps Should Communities and Governments Take to Reduce Gun Violence?

    Assault weapons bans, universal background checks for all gun purchases, red flag laws (or extreme risk protection orders), gun buyback programs, and mandatory waiting periods are among the current proposals for reducing gun violence in the United States. Each has generated strenuous debate between proponents and opponents.

    The National Firearms Act of 1934 was the country’s first national gun control legislation. It regulated fully automatic weapons, suppressors, short-barreled rifles and shotguns, and destructive devices such as bombs or grenades. Since 1934, there has been the following legislation:

    Learn more about these acts from the Federal Acts Regulating Firearms article by the Giffords Law Center.

    Suggested Learning Activity

    • Propose Public Policy Action
      • What laws and policies should communities and governments enact to reduce gun violence?
      • What are current proposals for reducing gun violence?

    Standard 5.6 Conclusion 

    Significant Supreme Court decisions known as landmark cases make huge changes in people's lives, expanding their protections and freedoms under the law. INVESTIGATE looked at cases where the Court changed its interpretations of a) First Amendment freedoms; b) the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment; and c) cases involving the Pledge of Allegiance, school prayer, national security, and gun control where the rights of individuals may clash with the needs of larger society. UNCOVER reviewed the impact of the Tinker v. Des Moines decision in light of the larger topic of student rights in schools. ENGAGE asked whether students have a right to sit during the Pledge of Allegiance or kneel during the National Anthem and asked what steps communities can take to end gun violence.