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Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights

Discover a uniquely American invention: the written specification of individual liberties and rights that citizens possess, and has as its subject the relationship of law to the most fundamental questions about politics, morality, and human nature.
Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 100.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent but needs an update This is an excellent course. Prof Finn has ample time to expound in detail on many of the important Supreme Court decisions that affect our civil liberties and does a very thorough job. Why did I give the course only 4 stars? Because much has transpired since 2006 when the course was recorded, not the least of which was the overturning of Roe v Wade. I recently purchased another course which is specifically noted to be "2nd edition" indicating that Great Courses can, and does, make revisions. I don't know whether Prof Finn is still available, but it would be helpful to have the intervening 18 years (I am writing this review in 2024) filled in. I do have one quibble. In a lecture on gender discrimination, Prof Finn cites a case centering on "3.2 beer" He proclaims that he does not even know what that item is. He should have looked it up. It is beer that is 3.2% ABV. Given the pathetic state of knowledge of Americans on the Bill of Rights (data cited by Prof Finn in his closing lecture), this course, or perhaps an even more basic one, should be mandatory course material in America's high schools rather than the misguided curricula that are now fashionable. (If I cited the alphabet-soup acronyms, I would get censored by the Great Courses, so I shall refrain).
Date published: 2024-02-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well Presented and Highly Informative - Essential This is by far one of the best courses that The Great Courses has put out. I have read the reviews and as always some detractors make good points but they cannot overwhelm or even diminish the quality of this course and presentation. This is 36 lectures covering the heart of the civil liberties owned by Americans since the Founding and which we find ourselves continually defending both in politics and the courts. Reviewer Alert: I have corresponded with Professor Finn regarding some questions I had regarding his lectures and have obtained a copy of his book for further reference. In addition, I have downloaded most of the cases he uses in the course (the internet is a useful tool). And yes, Professor Finn responded to my questions. I could help but notice that some reviewers are more concerned with the optics of the presentation rather than the content or were concerned that he did not cover a certain topic (such as Second Amendment) but this would be a mistake. The importance of the course is the progression of the application of the Bill of Rights to the civil rights of citizens (and non-citizens) over the past 225+ years as interpreted primarily by the Supreme Court and secondarily by state and federal governments. Professor Finn discusses a large number of cases, not from the standpoint of whether to court was right or not (no detectable bias) but rather how the understanding of civil rights and the Bill of Rights has changed over those years. Having gone through the whole course twice and certain lectures several times (the Fifth Amendment - Property Rights are a topic of interest) one of the underlying threads (not necessarily intention but apparent) is the continual and on-going tug-of-war within the court between interpreting laws under the Constitution and creating new law based on an interpretation of the Constitution. Within that contest has occurred the gradual recognition of civil rights in some areas (privacy) and the restriction of civil rights in other areas (property). From that aspect the course even though not reissued since 2004-5 is not outdated but forms a essential foundation for understanding and comprehending civil rights decisions since the course was produced; the Dobbs decision comes to mind. I am not going to argue that here. On another level, several reviewers were critical of Professor Finn's presentation; there is no problem with criticism. Over a lot of years of school we can all think of some lecturers whom we appreciated more than others. I found Prof. Finns presentation perfectly suited to the material and format. It was relaxed but straight forward as befitting someone who knows his subject and has spent many years in front of students explaining the law. He does go back over things on occasion for emphasis or to introduce a point that may have been overlooked the first pass. I recommend this course to anyone who is interested in the progress of civil rights and the protection of those rights under the Constitution.
Date published: 2023-08-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Examination Having only gone 6 courses, I do find the teacher and material explaining the foundations of our democracy. I do find the teacher has a desire to instill a living breathing constitution instead of the rigid written in stone mentality. As in anything you direction will be driven by your position. For people who are not familiar with the constitution this will be informative.
Date published: 2022-09-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Add to your knowledge of the BOR I really enjoyed most of the lectures. At times, it is a little repetitive but definitely worth the purchase.
Date published: 2022-08-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Woefully out-of-date This was probably an excellent and useful course in 2006, but the Supreme Court has made several momentous decisions in the past 16 years. Had I known how old the course is, I would not have bought it, even at a bargain basement price. The lecturer sounds especially silly when he laments the strife caused by the Supreme Court's Roe V. Wade, as if he believed that kicking the decision back to states would result produce calm. The Great Courses should retire this edition and put out an updated version.
Date published: 2022-08-27
Rated 3 out of 5 by from should have been better Whenever 100 words would do, Prof Finn uses 300 words; & frequently apologizes for no reason. Too much meandering; inadequate explanation of various comments. Multiple redundancies, beats a concept to death (ie #7 re Lochner). Often when cites a quote, you can't tell when he's finished citing vs going onto to his own words. Too often fails to explain (or at least explain early on) the underlying issues of a case, what specifics caused it to be tried. Too often discusses aspects of a case & gets into judges opinions, before telling us the outcome - leaving the listener hanging & unsure of the focus. In discussing abortion cases, he fails to recognize (or express) that religion/religious beliefs are often key to anti-abortion positions, despite the separation of church/state. In #25 on freedom of religion, too wishy washy - afraid or incapable of taking a position; at times defending or giving favorable slant to clear violations (ie school prayer) vs recognizing same as attempts to impose religion.
Date published: 2022-05-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from CD's As an older person I understand that things change, but my car still plays CD's and that is when I would listen to your great courses. Now that you no longer produce CD's, I can no longer expand my knowledge through you courses. I don't understand why you stopped making them. They can not be that expensive to produce and there still has to be some older people and cars out there.
Date published: 2022-04-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative lectures! I brought this course to understand our government and politics in light of the much propaganda in our nation today.
Date published: 2022-03-09
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This course introduces students to a uniquely American invention: the written specification of individual liberties and rights that citizens possess, and has as its subject the relationship of law to the most fundamental questions about politics, morality, and human nature.


John E. Finn


Wesleyan University

John E. Finn is Professor of Government Emeritus at Wesleyan University, where he taught for thirty years. Finn received a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton University, a J.D. from Georgetown University, a B.A. in political science from Nasson College, and a degree in culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute. His scholarly research and teaching focuses on constitutional theory, comparative constitutional law, the first amendment, and the legal regulation of terrorism and political violence. Professor Finn is an internationally recognized expert on constitutional law and political violence. His public lectures include testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee, as well as lectures in Chile, Bolivia, Spain, Italy, Canada, England, and France.

Finn is the author of four highly regarded and influential books on constitutional law: Fracturing the Founding: How the Alt-Right Corrupts the Constitution (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), Peopling the Constitution (Kansas, 2014), American Constitutional Law: Essays, Cases, and Comparative Notes 4th ed. (coauthor, West Academic Publishing, 2018), and Constitutions in Crisis: Political Violence and the Rule of Law (Oxford, 1991), and of numerous scholarly articles in professional journals.

Finn’s research and scholarly writing also extends to the study of food, recipes, and politics. He has published a book on the history, philosophy, and meaning of omelets, including recipes, The Perfect Omelet (Countryman, 2017), and several essays and articles, including “How Does a Recipe Mean,” in Table Matters: A Journal of Food, Drink, and Manners (2016), an entry on “Measurements,” in The Oxford Companion to Sweets, ed. Darra Goldstein (2015), an essay on Julia Child in Gastronomica (2007), and articles on “The Perfect Recipe,” (2011) and “The Kitchen Voice as Confessional,” (2004) in Food, Culture & Society.

What Are Civil Liberties?

01: What Are Civil Liberties?

In introducing students to the overall themes of the course and the methods and materials that will be used, we begin by noting that there is no easy or single answer to the misleadingly simple question, "What are civil liberties,"

33 min
The Bill of Rights—An Overview

02: The Bill of Rights—An Overview

The first constitutional document produced by the Philadelphia Convention did not include a bill of rights. We explore the history of the Bill of Rights, beginning with whether and why it was necessary and why it took the form that it did.

31 min
Two Types of Liberty—Positive and Negative

03: Two Types of Liberty—Positive and Negative

This lecture focuses primarily on one Supreme Court case and what it teaches about two issues concerning the breadth and scope of the Bill of Rights: the "state action doctrine" and the nature of the rights included in the Constitution.

31 min
The Court and Constitutional Interpretation

04: The Court and Constitutional Interpretation

After a brief history of the Court's early years, we take up important institutional issues, including how justices are appointed; the nature and limits of judicial power; how the Court actually decides cases; and the question of when, if ever, the Court should refrain from deciding a case.

30 min

05: "Marbury v. Madison" and Judicial Review

This lecture introduces students to the practice of judicial review - the authority of the Supreme Court and other federal courts to declare some governmental action unconstitutional - on some accounts, the cornerstone of American constitutional order.

31 min
Private Property and the Founding

06: Private Property and the Founding

One of the Constitution's central purposes, according to the Preamble, is to secure the "Blessings of Liberty." There is little doubt, as we shall see in this lecture, that chief among those liberties at the founding was the right to own private property.

30 min

07: "Lochner v. New York" and Economic Due Process

The Court's protection for private property has waxed and waned. This lecture traces that process from its beginnings through the 20th century, and includes a close look at one of the Court's most infamous decisions.

31 min
The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment

08: The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment

Following the Court's rejection of economic due process, the right to property became substantially less important than it once was. However, a few cases arising under the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause suggest that the right to property may be more robust than it has seemed over the last few decades.

31 min
Fundamental Rights—Privacy and Personhood

09: Fundamental Rights—Privacy and Personhood

We continue our examination of the relationship between liberty and community, broadening our focus to include the development of the constitutional right to privacy.

30 min
Privacy—Early Cases

10: Privacy—Early Cases

Though there is no explicit provision in the Constitution that grants a comprehensive right to privacy, concern for privacy does appear in several places, including the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, and other aspects of privacy intersect with the First Amendment's freedom of association.

31 min

11: "Roe v. Wade" and Reproductive Autonomy

Few topics in American law are as emotionally charged, and as doctrinally confused, as the discussion of abortion rights, encompassing not only the law, but also profound moral and political issues, and important questions about the role of the Supreme Court in American society.

31 min
Privacy and Autonomy—From

12: Privacy and Autonomy—From "Roe" to "Casey"

We continue our examination of the consequences of Roe by exploring subsequent litigation, including the most recent cases involving abortion and reproductive autonomy, which have highlighted the issues of judicial power and accountability.

31 min
Other Privacy Interests—Family

13: Other Privacy Interests—Family

As we have seen, the right to liberty is less a single right than a collection of diverse interests. The same is true of the right to privacy, an umbrella that covers a wide collection of more specific interests, including procreation, abortion, marriage, and sexuality.

31 min
Other Privacy Interests—Sexuality

14: Other Privacy Interests—Sexuality

Does the Constitution protect the choices we make about sexuality? Few areas of life, it might seem, are as private, but most societies also recognize a collective interest in regulating certain kinds of sexual conduct. We explore several cases that try to define that interest.

30 min
Same-Sex Marriages and the Constitution

15: Same-Sex Marriages and the Constitution

Does the Constitution protect same-sex marriages? No decision by the Supreme Court has addressed this question directly, but we look at several cases that might be relevant to the issue.

31 min
The Right to Die and the Constitution

16: The Right to Die and the Constitution

Few issues in civil liberties are as controversial as the question of whether the Constitution includes a right to die. We explore several cases that illustrate, in examining this question, how the most fundamental questions in civil liberties are not so much legal as moral.

30 min
Cruel and Unusual? The Death Penalty

17: Cruel and Unusual? The Death Penalty

The past few lectures have opened up questions that consider the relationship between self and society, between rights and responsibilities, and indeed about the meaning and definition of life itself. This lecture explores those issues in their most profound form: the death penalty.

31 min
The First Amendment—An Overview

18: The First Amendment—An Overview

From a few sparse words in the First Amendment, the Supreme Court has created a huge and complicated jurisprudence. In this lecture, we consider what the Founders may have meant when they sought to protect speech, as well as the equally important question of why they sought to protect speech.

31 min
Internal Security and the First Amendment

19: Internal Security and the First Amendment

The reasons we protect speech are complex. This lecture explores whether there are times when we might not want to protect it, examining the depth of our commitment and asking who should balance the competing demands of the First Amendment and national security.

31 min
Symbolic Speech and Expressive Conduct

20: Symbolic Speech and Expressive Conduct

We begin four lectures that take up thorny questions about the meaning of speech and expression, the scope of the First Amendment's protections, and what we might choose to leave unprotected because it is not really speech.

31 min
Indecency and Obscenity

21: Indecency and Obscenity

In several of our lectures we have wrestled with a problem of definition: What is speech? What isn't? In this lecture and the next we take up two different versions of this problem. In this lecture: Is pornography speech?

31 min
Hate Speech and Fighting Words

22: Hate Speech and Fighting Words

We examine the suppression of "hate speech" and the regulation of so-called "fighting words;" the debate over both highlights the tension between our commitment to freedom of expression and our collective interest in protecting values such as civility, social morality, and public order.

31 min
The Right to Silence

23: The Right to Silence

Does freedom of speech include the right not to speak? To refuse, for example, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or to tape over the state motto on an automobile license plate? We consider several cases.

31 min
Why Is Freedom of Religion So Complex?

24: Why Is Freedom of Religion So Complex?

The relationship between matters of the soul and matters of state is a subject of intense controversy in the United States. In this lecture we begin an extended inquiry into freedom of religion.

31 min
School Prayer and the Establishment Clause

25: School Prayer and the Establishment Clause

This lecture considers several cases illustrating two drives once observed by Justice Wiley Blount Rutledge to be "constantly in motion to abridge, in the name of education, the complete division of religion and civil authority."

31 min
Religion—Strict Separation or Accommodation?

26: Religion—Strict Separation or Accommodation?

We examine another, perhaps larger, issue that has troubled the Court in recent years: Does the establishment clause require government neutrality toward all forms of religious belief and nonbelief, or does it simply prohibit the government from favoring one religion over another?

31 min
The Free Exercise Clause—Acting on Beliefs

27: The Free Exercise Clause—Acting on Beliefs

Holding to a particular religious belief is one thing. Acting on that belief, however, can mean colliding with the rights of others or of the community. At what point should the community's interest in public order restrict an individual's right to free exercise?

30 min
Free Exercisee and “the Peyote Case”

28: Free Exercisee and “the Peyote Case”

This lecture examines whether a claim of free exercise can excuse some individuals simply because they are acting in accordance with their religion from the application of religiously "neutral" laws that would otherwise prohibit that action.

31 min
Two Religion Clauses—One Definition?

29: Two Religion Clauses—One Definition?

In a great many cases, the religion clauses work in tandem to secure religious freedom. In some cases, however, they appear to be at odds. We examine two illustrative cases.

31 min
Slavery and

30: Slavery and "Dred Scott" to Equal Protection

Equality has always been one of the basic ideals of the American constitutional order. The original text of the Constitution, however, did not completely reflect this ideal. This lecture examines the Court's treatment of racial discrimination from the Founding to the important case of "Dred Scott v. Sandford."

31 min

31: "Brown v. Board of Education"

This lecture explores the NAACP's systematic campaign for school desegregation - led by lead attorney Thurgood Marshall - that culminated in one of the Court's most historic rulings.

31 min
Equality and Affirmative Action

32: Equality and Affirmative Action

Does the remedial or benign purpose of affirmative action policies suggest the need for a special judicial test under the equal protection clause? This lecture explores how the Court has answered this question several times and in several ways.

31 min
Equality and Gender Discrimination

33: Equality and Gender Discrimination

The ideal of equality is deeply rooted in our constitutional culture, even if we frequently fail to live up to it. In this lecture we take up one such area of discrimination on the basis of gender.

30 min
Gender Discrimination as Semi-Suspect

34: Gender Discrimination as Semi-Suspect

The Court has been unable to identify a clear standard of review that should govern gender classifications. We examine the decisions that have produced the Supreme Court's current test for the constitutionality of gender classification, which demands more than simple rationality but less than strict scrutiny.

31 min
The Future of Equal Protection?

35: The Future of Equal Protection?

We see the Court's continuing reluctance to use the strict scrutiny standard in a variety of equal protection cases. And we also observe a clear preference except for cases involving race or gender to defer to the democratic process.

31 min
Citizens and Civil Liberties

36: Citizens and Civil Liberties

What overall conception of liberties, rights, and governmental powers most nearly reflects and promotes our best understanding of the Constitution? The final lecture examines how successful we have been in discovering an answer.

33 min