Liberty on Trial in America: Cases That Defined Freedom

Course No. 8692
Professor Douglas O. Linder, J.D.
University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
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Course No. 8692
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Learn the role played by the courts in granting important liberties.
  • numbers Hear the backstories of many of America’s most famous trials.
  • numbers Discover what happened in famous cases when the courts “got it wrong.”

Course Overview

We like to believe that the founding principle of the United States is liberty. “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Patrick Henry famously said in 1775 to encourage the Virginia colonists to fight for their freedom. It was liberty for which he was willing to sacrifice his life. And it was to gain that liberty that the colonists eventually fought and won the Revolutionary War. So, you would think that when the United States of America was formed, our citizenry could finally enjoy a plethora of hard-won liberties.

But that was not the case. While the new Americans no longer suffered from taxation without representation, many of the liberties we enjoy today were not part of their lives. In Liberty on Trial in America: Cases That Defined Freedom, you will learn how liberty increased in our country when individuals sued for those freedoms, when cases were brought specifically to test the limits of the Constitution with its Amendments, and even when a jury in a local case returned an unexpected verdict that helped change the thinking of the times.

In 24 fascinating lectures, Professor Douglas O. Linder of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law takes you behinds the scenes of the trials that brought us many of the freedoms we enjoy today. You’ll learn what happened when Anne Hutchinson dared to speak her religious ideas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 1600s; when Susan B. Anthony decided to vote in a national election; when John Peter Zenger challenged colonial authorities in his newspaper; when labor activists promoted radical ideas in the 1880s in Chicago; when Jehovah’s Witnesses decided their children should not be forced to salute the American flag in school, and brought 22 other civil liberties cases to the courts, and more.

A Behind-the-Scenes Look

You’ll develop an in-depth understanding of the participants in more than 24 fascinating trials and learn what actions and thoughts led them to court, as well as hear from the prosecuting and defending attorneys in cases that addressed the freedom to:

  • Teach evolution. In 1925, John Scopes was a young science teacher who agreed to serve as a test case for the Tennessee Butler Act, the law that made it illegal to teach anything that denied the Biblical account of human origins. While Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution, the trial brought the issue into American homes. The Butler Act was repealed, but not until 1967.
  • Marry the person you love, no matter their skin color. When Richard Loving married Mildred Jeter in 1958, they were thrilled, but the commonwealth of Virginia was not; Richard was white, and the state identified Mildred as “colored,” which made it illegal for them to marry. They eventually took their case to the Supreme Court and won in 1967.
  • Defend your home and family, regardless of race. In 1925, African American doctor Ossie Sweet bought a home for his family in a white neighborhood of Detroit. When a white man was killed during a riot outside his house, police charged everyone in the Sweet home with premeditated murder. With Clarence Darrow as his lawyer, the Sweets won the same right to defend their property that their white neighbors already enjoyed.
  • Famous Figures

    Many famous figures in American history play prominent roles in these trials, whether as plaintiff, defendant, or attorney. You’re familiar with their names, but in this course, you’ll learn their fascinating backstories, including:

    • John Brown, the abolitionist who armed slaves and encouraged an uprising in 1859 at Harper’s Ferry;
    • Susan B. Anthony, the women’s suffrage advocate who was arrested in 1872 for the act of voting;
    • Clarence Darrow, the attorney who, in the 1920s, defended the right of science teacher John Scopes to teach evolution in public school, and—with a seven-hour summation—defended the right of African American Henry Sweet to defend himself against a white mob;
    • William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, U.S. Secretary of State, and the attorney who prosecuted John Scopes for teaching evolution in public school, but withered under examination by Clarence Darrow;
    • Norma McCorvey (“Roe”), the woman who filed suit against Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade in 1970, challenging a Texas law that prohibited her from having an abortion; and
    • Jack Kevorkian, the doctor who advocated for a patient’s right to die by physician-assisted suicide, participated in euthanasia, and was convicted of murder in 1999.

    When Liberty Lost

    U.S. history has not always moved in a straight line from less freedom to more freedom. In Liberty on Trial in America: Cases That Defined Freedom, you’ll learn not only about cases in which liberty claims were vindicated, but also those in which they were denied. Sometimes those cases that upheld the status quo seem most clearly unjust by today’s standards, and, occasionally, even by the standards of the times. Slavery, for example, sometimes received protection by judges who nonetheless found it despicable. It was the Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment, not the courts, that finally granted liberties to enslaved persons. You’ll learn about cases that:

    • Did not allow a slave to testify that she killed her master in self-defense after he had repeatedly raped her over a period of years. At trial, evidence was presented that the fatal blow that particular night came only after Celia (no last name) was physically threatened, but the judge instructed the jury to ignore that evidence. Celia was convicted and executed.
    • Upheld the “separate but equal” doctrine, keeping Jim Crow laws on the books for decades. Homer Plessy was a Caucasian-looking man in Louisiana who took a seat in a train’s “white” section, announced he was 1/8 African American, and refused to move. The case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities.
    • Upheld the constitutionality of the Japanese American relocation camps on the basis of national security. Two months after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed an executive order requiring all Japanese Americans to move into the camps. Fred Korematsu refused, was arrested, convicted, and took his case to the Supreme Court. The Court majority found that the executive order was justified by national security concerns.

    No courts are infallible. As you’ll learn in Liberty on Trial in America: Cases That Defined Freedom, the Supreme Court has come back to revisit these and many other decisions. Sometimes new information is available, or the social framework of society has drastically changed, and sometimes the original decisions were just wrong. For example, in 2018, Chief Justice John Roberts took an opportunity to comment on Korematsu: “Korematsu was gravely wrong the day it was decided, has been overruled in the court of history, and—to be clear—has no place in law under the Constitution.”

    As you learn about the intriguing cases presented in the 24 lectures of this course, you’ll understand and appreciate your own liberties in a new way. After all, every freedom we have has been won through someone’s passion and willingness to fight for what they believe is right. And just as liberty has been continuously redefined throughout American history—it will continue to be redefined in the future.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    The Trial of Anne Hutchinson
    There was no toleration of religious dissent in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s; you either accepted Puritan orthodoxy, or you could leave. And there certainly was no room for religious argument for a woman! When Anne Hutchinson shared with others her religious ideas and gathered a following, the governor put her on trial for heresy. Explore the trials, defense, and punishment of the woman sometimes called “America’s first feminist.” x
  • 2
    The Trial of John Peter Zenger
    Freedom of speech was not a recognized liberty in the early years of American colonies. Speech critical of the powers that be could land one in legal trouble—even if everyone involved agreed the statements were true. Explore the colonial history of the press freedom, voter suppression, and attempts to influence juries as they all came together to affect the libel trial of John Peter Zenger. Did this landmark freedom of the press case actually set any precedent? x
  • 3
    Two Slave Trials
    The citizens of the newly formed United States could not agree on the overall moral issue of slavery, but they were willing to take up its more narrow legal issues. Gain a greater understanding of the many ways in which the legal system supported the institution of slavery by examining the trials of two slaves: Anthony Burns, whose freedom was eventually purchased by abolitionists, and Celia (no last name), who was hanged. x
  • 4
    The Trial of John Brown
    John Brown was an abolitionist who believed he could end slavery by arming the slaves. His plan, however, came to a tragic end at Harper's Ferry, VA, when guards were killed as he seized the federal armory and only a few slaves joined his revolt. Instead, Brown was charged with treason, murder, and slave insurrection. Learn how John Brown's trial and execution nevertheless played a significant role in the eventual end of slavery in the United States. x
  • 5
    The Trial of Susan B. Anthony
    Susan B. Anthony believed she was a citizen of the United States according to the Fourteenth Amendment—and, as such, she believed she had the right to vote. But in 1872, the law was not on her side. So when she dropped her ballot into the box at the West End New Depot in Rochester, NY, on Election Day, she was arrested. Learn about the trial that brought nationwide attention to the issue of women’s suffrage. x
  • 6
    The Trial of the Haymarket Eight
    Labor tensions were already at the boiling point in Chicago, when someone threw a bomb into a group of police officers. Although the bomb thrower was never found, eight defendants were tried by a jury handpicked by the bailiff, and seven were found guilty and sentenced to death—for the crime, it was claimed, of inciting violence. Explore the ways in which this trial became a key event in the history of free speech in America. x
  • 7
    The Trial of John T. Scopes
    In 1925, Tennessee enacted a law making the teaching of evolution in any state-supported school a crime. John Scopes was a young science teacher at the time who agreed to serve as a test case for the law, defended by Clarence Darrow. Explore the heated opinions expressed on both sides and how the trial's publicity brought the issue directly into American homes. x
  • 8
    The Sweet Trials, Race, and Self-Defense
    In 1925, Dr. Ossian Sweet, an African American, bought a home for his family in a white neighborhood of Detroit. When a white crowd gathered around the house and violence broke out, one member of the crowd was killed. Police charged everyone in the Sweet home with premeditated murder. Explore Clarence Darrow's defense, and what the trial revealed about American society at that time. x
  • 9
    Jehovah's Witnesses and Flag-Salute Cases
    Between 1938 and 1946, the Supreme Court handed down 23 opinions involving civil liberties issues raised by Jehovah's Witnesses. Explore two of those cases, both of which address whether or not Jehovah's Witnesses can be forced to salute the flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. Learn why the Court came down first on one side of the issue, and then the other. x
  • 10
    Korematsu v. United States
    In 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed an executive order requiring that all Japanese Americans move to “relocation camps” as a matter of national security. Fred Korematsu refused, was arrested for violating an “exclusion order,” and convicted. Learn how Korematsu carried his fight against what he thought was an “un-American” law all the way to the Supreme Court, and why the decision ultimately went against him. How did history and subsequent Courts treat this decision? x
  • 11
    Segregation on Trial
    In 1892, the Supreme Court, in a case involving the conviction of Homer Plessy for sitting in a section of a Louisiana train designated for “whites only,” established the principle of “separate but equal.” Learn about Charles H. Houston, the African American lawyer who made it his life’s work to challenge Jim Crow laws and who won a critical Supreme Court victory in the case of Gaines v. Missouri, paving the way for the Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Houston’s work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to end segregation led his successor, Thurgood Marshall, to say he was just carrying Houston’s bags—and that Houston was the Moses who charted the legal path to racial equality. x
  • 12
    The Lenny Bruce Trials
    Today, Lenny Bruce is considered a trailblazer of American stand-up comedy addressing the now-common themes of politics, sex, and religion. But in the 1950s and '60s, he was considered an obscene subversive, and arrested numerous times. Explore the ways in which Bruce and the First Amendment affected each other. Today's authors, publishers, poets, and comedians owe a debt of gratitude to Bruce. x
  • 13
    The Evolving Right to Marry
    Richard Loving wanted to do nothing more than to marry the woman of his dreams. But Richard was white, and Mildred, according to the commonwealth of Virginia, was “colored,” which made it illegal for them to marry. Learn how the case of this modest, unassuming couple went all the way to the Supreme Court, and how the Court’s ruling eventually led to marriage equality for same-sex couples, as well. x
  • 14
    Wisconsin v. Yoder
    In the 1960s, the Amish had several disagreements with the state concerning their children's education. But most important, they did not believe their children should be required to attend school past the age of 16. Explore the conflicting views and goals of these parents, schools, and state. Learn how the issue made it to the Supreme Court, which conflicting liberties were considered, and why the Court decided in favor of the parents. x
  • 15
    Furman v. Georgia
    Public support for the death penalty in the United States has historically ebbed and flowed. In 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment as then administered was unconstitutional, many legal experts—including some justices—believed that would end the death penalty. Learn why that was not the case, and explore the deep complexities of the law as it relates to capital punishment. x
  • 16
    The Trial of Daniel Ellsberg
    Is it legal for an individual to copy top-secret documents and release them to the press? Is it legal for agents of the government to break into a psychiatrist’s office to look for information about a criminal defendant? Can the government legally stop a newspaper from publishing classified material? Explore how these questions—and their answers from the courts—affected the country’s political life during the Nixon administration, and ultimately led to the president’s resignation. x
  • 17
    The Road to Roe v. Wade
    Norma McCorvey knew two things: She was pregnant and she did not want the baby. Desperate for an abortion, she agreed (under the name “Jane Roe”) to take the case to court, and ultimately the Supreme Court. As you learn about the famous decision that resulted, you’ll also gain a better understanding of the many other ways in which American courts have intervened in personal decisions related to sterilization and birth control, as well as abortion. x
  • 18
    The Right to an Intimate Life
    Should the government interfere in activities in your bedroom? Well into the 20th century, every state had laws prohibiting at least one sexual act, even between heterosexual married couples in the privacy of their own home. Explore the numerous lawsuits and trials that eventually extended the protection of privacy to include intimacy, regardless of sexual orientation. x
  • 19
    The Ruby Ridge Trial
    Do we Americans have the freedom to isolate ourselves, hold and express views considered racist and hateful by the majority, and stockpile legally purchased weapons? Do we have the liberty to sell a sawed-off shotgun? Explore the complex story and resultant trial that started with Randy and Vicki Weaver wanting to separate themselves from mainstream society, and ended with three dead at Ruby Ridge. x
  • 20
    The Trials of Jack Kevorkian
    Jack Kevorkian believed strongly that individuals should have the right to end their pain and suffering, and with his inventions of the “thanotron” and the “mercitron,” Kevorkian helped hundreds do just that. Legally tried, having escaped conviction time after time, a final trial proved his undoing. Explore Dr. Kevorkian’s work on behalf of an individual’s right to euthanasia, why he believed he was taking a stand for liberty, and why he was eventually convicted of second-degree homicide. x
  • 21
    Boy Scouts of America v. Dale
    Do private organizations have the right to exclude members based on criteria that many—maybe even most in society—find objectionable? When the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) expelled scout leader James Dale because he way gay, Dale challenged the BSA’s authority to use sexual orientation as a basis for exclusion. In a case pitting Dale’s claimed right to be free from discrimination against the associational rights of the Scouts, the Supreme Court sided with the Boy Scouts. Examine why the U.S. Supreme Court decided as it did, and the effects and implications of its ruling. x
  • 22
    Kelo v. City of New London
    Does a city have the right to use eminent domain to take private property and sell it for private development if the city believes that development will improve the city’s economy? Learn how Susette Kelo’s refusal to sell her “little pink house” in New London, CT, led to a Supreme Court case addressing what she described to Congress as “eminent domain abuse”—and why she lost the case. x
  • 23
    The Citizens United Case
    U.S. candidates have a long history of trying to outraise and outspend their opponents to win elections. This has meant, oftentimes, that big corporations and wealthy donors determine election outcomes and, at least potentially, gain an opportunity to influence the votes and policies of the candidates they helped elect. In response, Congress had repeatedly tried to curtail such “corrupting” activities. Explore why, then, in 2010, the Supreme Court declared any ban on political spending by corporations to be unconstitutional—and why, at the same time, most polls show strong support for a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling. x
  • 24
    Liberty for Nonhumans?
    Many Americans were initially excluded from “liberty and justice for all.” Is it possible that future trials will result in greater liberties for apes, cetaceans, and elephants? Learn how “Tommy” became the first chimpanzee to have a suit for his freedom filed on his behalf and why one judge on the New York Court of Appeals says the issue of fundamental rights for nonhuman animals is not going away. x

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Your professor

Douglas O. Linder

About Your Professor

Douglas O. Linder, J.D.
University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
Douglas O. Linder is the Elmer Powell Peer Professor of Law at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. He graduated summa cum laude from Gustavus Adolphus College and from Stanford Law School. Professor Linder has taught as a visiting professor at the University of Iowa and Indiana University School of Law. Professor Linder has published extensively in legal journals and books on such topics as great...
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Liberty on Trial in America: Cases That Defined Freedom is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 21.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging Lectures The lectures are informative and Professor Linder presents them in a way to draw the viewer in and in a time frame that doesn't drag out and become boring. Some of the earlier cases give a glimpse of what America looked like in that era; vastly different than today on many levels. However, we see similarities of how people consider law to use to their benefit or cost. An enjoyable course.
Date published: 2020-10-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well presented with a wide range of topics. I am about half way through this course and have found the content to be very interesting and well presented. It is shining a new light on the dry facts I learned in my history courses years ago by putting things in the larger context of the personalities of the people involved along with what formed their opinions and beliefs.
Date published: 2020-08-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Careful Scholarship and Lively Presentation Professor Linder's course is outstanding. Speaking as a retired law professor, I appreciate how he combines careful scholarship with a lively teaching style. I recommend that students also read the pertinent parts of his course book before or after each lecture since this will reinforce his main points.
Date published: 2020-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Judicial Process and American Freedom These lectures are thought-provoking and stimulating. The professor presents a comprehensive background to the case, goes into great depth to explain the verdict, and gives an extensive presentation of the outcome(s) of the case
Date published: 2020-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Engaging explanations of the cases and circumstances surrounding them. Covers perspectives I never heard before, even as a history major in college.
Date published: 2020-08-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Although liberty is supposed to be a unifying theme, the cases seem arbitrarily selected. They may or may not be particularly significant for defining liberty. One thing that does become very clear, is how often liberty in the United States has hinged on the vote of one old white man with a blatant conflict of interest. Most lectures just regurgitate what lawyers claimed, with no suggestion of what the real story may have been. For example, the Korematsu case (the California concentration camp order), no mention was made of all the property confiscated (possibly $3 billion in 1940 dollars) which would be an obvious tie-in with Kelo, the Hartford property confiscation case. Nor is there any explanation of why, if the case was so clearly wrong, repudiating it took 30 years. A lukewarm recommendation, raises some interesting questions but don't expect much insight towards liberty in the American legal system.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Mostly excellent For the most part this was an excellent course. The instructor is an excellent story teller and one should be aware that this course is long on stories and relatively short on deep analysis. The 24th and final lecture was, however, a major disappointment. I would have much rather had a lecture earlier on one of those cases for which he didn't have time than that one which, about 'liberty for nonhuman people' didn't rise nearly to the importance of most of those the instructor mentions as having not had time to present.
Date published: 2020-07-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Law as it should be taught I am a retired maritime lawyer and long-time customer of the Great Courses. I complement Professor Linder on the excellence of his presentations in this course. I particularly enjoyed and appreciated the way he described the history and context of the issues and cases before addressing the course of the trials or the appellate arguments and decisions, and I was impressed by how much research he must have done to accomplish that. He clearly described the main testimony, arguments, and holdings without adding superfluous points. I was disappointed in the teaching quality in my law school, but I would have had a different opinion if the courses were like Professor Linder's presentation.
Date published: 2020-07-06
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