*Olio Seminar* Know Your Rights? Know Your Rights!
Our legal system is not infallible. The law has protected the institution of slavery. It has inhibited equal rights. It has perpetuated ignorance, intolerance, and wrongful imprisonment. Justice, despite the popular cliché, is far from blind. But the law has also been a powerful ally to the forces of liberty and equality. It cast off the shackles of the slave. It helped pave the way for equal rights. It has protected vulnerable citizens from ignorance, intolerance, and wrongful imprisonment. Most importantly, it keeps us safe from physical harm.
Week 1 – The First Amendment (the part about Freedom of Speech)
I get that free speech is protected, but you still can’t yell fire in a movie theater or say bomb on an airplane, right? Wait… can you? When was that decided? Is it legal for me to stand on a street corner and advocate the violent overthrow of the American government as long as I don’t hurt anybody? Do I really need a permit to organize a political protest? What’s an unlawful assembly – isn’t that just a way for the powers that be to stifle political expression? Can people really be fired from their jobs for expressing controversial views in the workplace?
Week 2 – The First Amendment (the part about Freedom of Religion)
Is discrimination against homosexuals or limiting access to birth control really protected under the “free exercise of religion” clause? What was that Hobby Lobby case again… and that thing about not having to make wedding cakes for gay couples? If prayer in public schools is illegal, doesn’t that discriminate against people whose religions instruct them to pray multiple times daily? I’ve totally seen a Ten Commandments monument on government property.
Week 3 – The Second Amendment
So a guy in Texas can bring a gun to a playground but I can’t carry a knife on the E train? The Bill of Rights says that “the right to keep and bear arms” can’t be “infringed” upon but grenade launchers are still illegal everywhere, right? Don’t some cities even have laws that prohibit people from keeping guns in their own homes? Where are the lines drawn? Have those lines changed over time?
Week 4 – The Fourth Amendment
The cops totally need a warrant before they can search my house… but what if they hear screaming coming from inside? What if they lie about hearing screams just so they don’t have to get one. Are the rules different if they think I’m a terrorist? Is a warrant necessary before searching my emails or my phone or my browser history? What about when I get pulled over – do I have to get out of my car… open my trunk… my glove box? How was stop-and-frisk even a thing? What the hell does probable cause even mean? Is it true that the word privacy doesn’t appear once in the Constitution?
This four part Olio Seminar offers a practical and accessible primer to the basics (and many contradictions) of US constitutional law. Topics will include free speech law, gun control, police powers, the rights of the accused, and the right to privacy. We will examine these things by studying the great cases in US legal history – those key trials, arguments, and decisions which have shaped our modern day rights.
Teacher: Lawrence Cappello
Lawrence Cappello is the Macaulay Honors College Visiting Professor of History at CUNY Queens College. He is the author of None of Your Damn Business: A History of Privacy in the United States, due out next year. He has written for The Atlantic and The Nation.
Location: Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP