The curricular materials posted here aim to teach about the U.S. Constitution “on the ground.” They highlight civil rights now, not historically, and civil rights struggles all around us—in our neighborhoods, school, workplaces—not just in Washington D.C.
The materials use a variety of instructional strategies—including trial and negotiation and debate role-plays—for teaching about modern civil rights. The materials presented have been developed by the Schoolhouse project of the University of Michigan Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse. Teachers from grades 8 through college can use the materials for lessons that localize constitutional law and practice, communicating to students that they and people like them are participants in developing and contesting civil rights norms.
The United States system of government and law exists and is structured to protect our rights to liberty, democratic self-governance, and equal protection of the law. Individuals can use the legal system to advocate for their civil rights and work to close any gaps that exist between American constitutional ideals and reality. Civil rights litigation is important in upholding the rights of all Americans, including the most vulnerable members of society. Thousands of civil rights cases over the last fifty years have transformed schools, prisons, mental health facilities, housing authorities, police departments, child welfare agencies and more. Ordinary citizens have used litigation to enforce federal statutes and constitutional provisions that require fair treatment by government and prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status and national origin. In the process, they have protected and enforced their own rights as well as the rights of countless others.
For much of U.S. history, prisoners were considered to have lost the protection of the Constitution and other laws; they were sometimes described as “slaves of the state.” American prisoners suffered through deplorable living conditions, non-existent or poor medical care, brutal labor requirements, and arbitrary punishment. The tide began to turn in the 1960s and ‘70s, when, in the midst of the civil rights movements, prison conditions came under greater public scrutiny and activists began to advocate for the rights of incarcerated people. The 1964 case of Cooper v. Pate—in which an Illinois state prisoner had been held in solitary confinement because of his religion, and was denied access to the Koran—was the first time the Supreme Court held that a prisoner could file a civil rights lawsuit. Then, in a 1974 case regarding unfair disciplinary charges in the prison system, Wolff v. McDonnell, the Supreme Court famously declared that “there is no iron curtain between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.”
Through most of U.S. history, women had limited access to educational programs and extracurricular activities. Most women were excluded from elite academic institutions, and those schools that accepted female applicants required them to have higher test scores and grades than their male counterparts. Even when women were admitted to schools, they did not have the same financial aid opportunities, were excluded from many programs, and faced more restrictive rules. In the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights activists advocated for federal enforcement of equal opportunities for male and female students. In response, Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. That law, known as Title IX, bans educational programs that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of gender. This applies to a wide range of activities, including admissions, athletics, employment opportunities, and financial assistance. Over the past four decades, Title IX has greatly improved access to educational opportunities for women.
Some controversies arise when our shared values and principles conflict with one another. Police “stop-and-frisk” policy is one such issue. In stop-and-frisk, police officers stop, question, and conduct a pat-down search of pedestrians or occupants of cars. Some police leaders contend that a stop-and-frisk program is useful to promote public safety. Of course, if stop-and-frisk is not effective, it can be an invasive practice often implemented in a discriminatory way. The conflicting values that arise from stop-and-frisk are public safety on the one hand and privacy and equality on the other.
This unit asks you to consider the permissible restrictions schools can place on students’ freedom of speech, as they learn about the (fictional, but realistic) case of Davis v. Ann Arbor School Board. You will either conduct a mock negotiation in which they will try to resolve a First Amendment-related conflict between a student and his public high school, or a mock argument in which you will argue for one side in front of a panel of student judges.
In this unit, you will participate in a mock trial that explores the rights and restrictions on individuals attempting to practice their own religion. Students will first familiarize themselves with the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (“RFRA”), which was intended to further protect First Amendment rights. You will then read and analyze case documents adapted from a real federal court case, Singh v. Carter, which involved a conflict between a soldier’s desire to exercise his religious practices and the U.S. Army’s interest in protecting its soldiers through uniform and safety requirements.
What does “civil rights” mean in the Trump era? How and why is the category evolving? This Teach-Out focuses on the civil rights aspects of two current debates–health care and the President’s seven-country travel ban–looking at politics, protest, and law. To understand these better, you will learn about foundational civil rights history dating back to Reconstruction (after the Civil War). You will also hear the perspectives of scholars in law, sociology, and political science, as well as civil rights advocates, who will all discuss how civil rights are defended and contested, often growing and contracting in response to other demands and debates. This Teach-Out ends with a call to action for you: How will you participate as our nation defines our rights?