Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights

Course No. 8530
Professor John E. Finn, Ph.D.
Wesleyan University
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Course No. 8530
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Course Overview

The civil liberties and constitutional rights our nation's citizens possess—not only in theory, but in the courtroom, where the state can be forced to honor those liberties—are a uniquely American invention. And when we were taught history and learned about the Constitution and Bill of Rights, we were always made aware of that uniqueness, of the extraordinary experiment that gave every citizen of this new nation a gift possessed by no others. But what, exactly, was that gift?

What liberties and rights did the Founders intend us to have? How do we get from what Professor John Finn calls the Constitution's "wonderfully elastic and vague" language to the finely tuned specifics of the Supreme Court's decisions about speech, or abortion, or religion?

And what is religion? In forbidding Congress to make any law "respecting an establishment" of religion, or "prohibiting the free exercise" of it, the Founders neglected to define it. The answer is more complicated than it seems.

In fact, as Professor Finn shows in Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights, almost everything about the Constitution, no matter how unwavering its words might appear, is more complicated than it seems at first reading, leaving a legacy of questions that multiplies with each passing decade.

Why have generations of jurists and legal scholars—not to mention legislators, presidents, and citizens—argued so long and hard about the meaning of what often appears to be unambiguous phrasing? How is it that several differing Supreme Court opinions—even those on diametrically opposed sides of a sharply disputed case—can so often all seem plausible? And how has so remarkably sparse a document as the Constitution nevertheless proven to be so complex a vision of what an ideal polity should be?

A Look at Law as It Relates to Fundamental Questions

In addressing such questions, Professor Finn is interested in far more than law. He emphasizes that this series of lectures, based on Supreme Court opinions from dozens of the Court's most important landmark decisions, is not a law course where you memorize specific legal tests and principles.

Instead, it has as its subject, says Professor Finn, "the relationship of law to the most fundamental sorts of questions about politics, morality, and human nature."

Thus, as the lectures examine the legal evolution of specific liberties and rights:

  • Due process and privacy
  • Jurisprudence about the death penalty
  • Freedom of speech and of religion
  • Equal protection
  • Habeas corpus.

"There is always a broad theoretical context to consider. We want to know "the overall conception of liberties, rights, and governmental powers that most nearly reflects and promotes our best understanding of the Constitution and the polity it both constitutes and envisions."

In striving to convey that understanding, Professor Finn encourages us to see that "most of the serious difficulties (and there are many) in the politics of civil liberties arise from conflicts between our commitments to two or more positive values," or, as Justice Felix Frankfurter once wrote, "What the Greeks thousands of years ago recognized as a tragic issue, namely, the clash of rights, not the clash of wrongs."

Or, expressed in more practical terms, we live under a Constitution whose meaning is never self-evident, so that, as Professor Finn notes, "There is usually more than one way to understand a constitutional provision, usually more than one way to decide a case," with "few, if any, uncontested principles or issues or questions in the American constitutional order."

Balancing Vital Tensions

Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights explores the tensions that make up that order—tensions, say, between our commitment to self-governance, expressed through majority rule and the other democratic principles, and our simultaneous commitment to constitutionalism and the Bill of Rights, expressed by the need to keep the majority from acting in ways that trample on liberty.

By emphasizing ongoing efforts to grapple with broad philosophical principles that the Founders sought to build into the language of the Constitution, this course provides an ideal complement to the more chronological and descriptive approach offered by The History of the Supreme Court. At the same time, it also complements the perspectives emphasized by our courses in philosophy and intellectual history that examine the more purely theoretical underpinnings of the American experiment. For in focusing on the written opinions of the Court's members—which are illuminating whether written for the majority, in dissent, or to offer alternative reasons for concurring with a final decision—these lectures directly engage the approach taken by the Court as it has sought not only to understand the language and principles of the Constitution, but also to shape them into the working laws of the land.

Although Professor Finn covers many of the most famous landmark decisions that also appear in The History of the Supreme Court, his course is organized into broad themes, and his method is markedly different. Taking a "liberal arts approach," Professor Finn looks at constitutional issues from the perspective of their foundations in social, moral, and political theory, thereby addressing "questions about the meaning of justice, questions about the meaning of equality, and questions about the meaning of America itself."

A Chance to See the Evolution of Principles

An example of Professor Finn's ability to reveal the law's evolutionary processes at work comes during his discussion of the famous 1965 decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, when the Court first recognized an explicit constitutional right to privacy.

Professor Finn explains how that idea had first been set forth in an article—coauthored by Boston lawyer Louis Brandeis—in the Harvard Law Review in 1898. Thirty years later—now sitting on the Supreme Court—Justice Brandeis raised the issue again. But he was raising it in a famous dissent from the majority opinion, and it would take 35 more years before another majority opinion, written by Justice William O. Douglas, would finally indicate the Court's agreement: The Constitution does indeed include, even if not explicitly, a right to privacy—though the Court could not agree on what privacy means.

As an interesting sidelight, Professor Finn notes that the statute against birth control overturned by Griswold had been placed on the books more than 100 years earlier—enacted as one of the very first of the antipornography, antiobscenity laws.

Professor Finn's discussion of the Griswold ruling, and the long legal gestation of its underlying principle, exemplifies the teaching skills that have been honored repeatedly. Also apparent are his passion for his subject and his ability to convey even the subtlest nuances of the legal and philosophical evolution of issues such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, school prayer, privacy, equality, reproductive rights, affirmative action, and so much more.

And as you might expect from such difficult issues, this is a course filled with nuance—each side of so many constitutional issues can be presented plausibly. Though none of us will agree with every decision of the Court or the constitutional interpretations on which they are constructed, it is extraordinary to experience, so directly, from throughout our history, in the carefully constructed language of the nation's leading judges, the deliberate flexibility and ambiguity that so often make even opposing opinions defensible. Indeed, this is among our Constitution's very greatest strengths.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    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?" x
  • 2
    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. x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    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. x
  • 5
    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. x
  • 6
    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. x
  • 7
    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. x
  • 8
    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. x
  • 9
    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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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." x
  • 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? x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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—that of discrimination on the basis of gender. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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Your professor

John E. Finn

About Your Professor

John E. Finn, Ph.D.
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...
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Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 90.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from awesome This is an incredible course, so packed with information that I know I will watch it again. Dr. Finn thoroughly covers the case law related to key civil liberties and the evolution of the Supreme Court’s thinking. Dr. Finn’s knowledge and enthusiasm are vast, his analysis balanced. I love his assertion that, despite the doctrine of judicial review, the Supreme Court is not solely responsible for interpreting the Constitution. I would like to believe that that is true, and I would like to know how to make my own voice heard. Merely voting feels insufficient. This course might benefit from a different title. Not every civil liberty in the Bill of Rights is discussed; in fact, the Bill of Rights isn't really discussed, once Dr. Finn notes that "civil liberties" are the civil rights included in the Bill of Rights. I am now taking Dr. Finn's great course about the First Amendment. I highly recommend both that course and this one.
Date published: 2015-03-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Challenging and a bit scary A study of the Bill of Rights could be a dry review of cases and legal doctrines. This course was decidedly not that way. Professor John E. Finn related the issues surrounding civil liberties to much broader philosophical, political, and social concerns. He carefully described the nuances of the issues and the implications of court decisions. This is not a course to be taken casually. You cannot do it justice if you merely listen to it in the car while driving to work. It requires constant thought and review and undivided attention. After completing this course, I realize that our civil liberties are really not very well protected. They are subject to the whims and personal values of judges. Judges make mistakes - sometimes big ones. These controversies are not simple. They routinely involve a clash of positive dearly held values. Judges can invoke any number of principles or doctrines in order to support whatever outcome they might personally desire. It is up to all of us as citizens to remain vigilant and true to our values of human dignity and freedom. This includes educating ourselves on matters of self-government using materials such as this course. The only problem I had was that I got bogged down in the first third of the lectures because those issues seemed remote and of lesser interest to me. But they are nevertheless important because Finn uses them to establish concepts that are needed to fully appreciate the import of later topics. There is much to learn here and much to understand. It is a challenging and excellent course.
Date published: 2015-02-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from The Professor talked in a very mundain voice, that made it difficult to remain alert and attentive.
Date published: 2014-11-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Scary how they are swayed by the political winds. It was fascinating to learn how the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution and Bill of Rights and scary how they are swayed by the political winds. I was taught that the Constitution was a living document meant to adapt and change with time. Our legal system has taken this to the extremes and made a mess of what the Founding Fathers intended. Not a big fan of presenter, at times very confusing as to what case he is talking about.
Date published: 2014-06-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The content of the course is interesting, and is well presented by Professor Finn. It was striking, surprising, and a bit frightening to understand how profound decisions in constitutional judgment could be so deeply affected by personal preferences and beliefs of judges - real people. Another very interesting point was that the court itself decides how it should function, which cases it should take. On occasion, it seemed that the material is getting a bit too fine grained for the casual listener - hence the 4 stars on content.
Date published: 2013-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Real Can of Worms! It took me a few lectures to really get into this course, but once there I found it excellent. Professor Finn is obviously very knowledgable of constitutional law and was thorough in his presentation (focusing on just a few essential parts of the Bill of Rights). Although he at times was verbose he also treated us listeners as capable and competent law students, and did so with a refreshingly unpredictable and multisided perspective. The result is I learned a lot and can no longer say I have faith in how the Constitution informs modern America, or how the Supreme Court functions within a balance of powers. This ambivalence is at least an informed view now, and reflects the ambivalence and contradictions in both the original document and in the court's rulings since. Surprisingly I was quite satisfied with discovering it is a mixed up and messy can of worms once it is opened up. And Professor Finn does an excellent job of opening it all up. I thought at first 36 lectures would be too long, but I can see now he could easily have doubled it.
Date published: 2013-10-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Why Constitutions Don't Protect Freedom This course was not an obvious choice for me, as I live in the UK and knew very little about the US constitution. However as a libertarian I am intrigued by the arguments of minarchism v anarcho-capitalism. I thought a course on the constitution and bill of rights of the "Land of the Free" might be interesting. My overwhelming impression at the end of the course was that the libertarian ideals of the founding fathers have been "Lochnerized" by the US Supreme Court to the point where they are a nothing but a pale shadow of what was intended. Professor Finn tries valiantly to weave some logic into the capricious rulings, but ultimately fails. Not because of lack of rigour, but because no logical structure can accommodate mutually exclusive positions. An amazing lesson in how the state will do whatever it wants, regardless of any form of written constitution.
Date published: 2013-10-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from You must take this course This is my second time listening to this course. I enjoyed the first pass thru the course but felt it was so rich in information a second listen would be rewarding. It certainly is. As a person with no legal training I find this course provides a stimulating introduction to constitutional law and the deliberations of the Supreme Court. Professor Finn has a nice sense of humor and his pacing allows your brain sufficient time to absorb what he has just said. I must say this is a course thick with ideas new to me. But now Supreme Court decisions make more sense. I see clearly the Supreme Court is a necessary but flawed institution. Nine unelected judges have enormous power to nullify federal and state law. It's truly chilling to learn that some decisions arise from the judges' personal beliefs and preferences rather than from the wording of the constitution. But somehow our messy system of government just works. Bad court decisions are eventually overturned and we move on. As Professor Finn laments, knowledge of the constitution is lacking in most Americans. This course is a sure fire remedy. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2013-09-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This course will make you think! If you are looking for a course that, in addition to enlightening, makes you think, this is it! It causes you to think about what it means to be an American. I would suggest listening to Lecture 36 (the last one) first. The Constitution and many of its amendments are purposefully vague. The documents convey a framework and let citizens, legislators, the executive branch, and judiciary work out specifics. In practice, what does free speech and religious freedom really enable us to do or preclude us from doing? Except for the fourth amendment’s prohibition against reasonable searches, there are no references to “privacy.” What then, in practice, does “privacy” mean? Professor Finn helps you understand how our legal system reconciles our continuous struggle to balance individual liberties with community needs and how it evolves with changing morality such as our attitude toward slavery. He explains that the Supreme Court is usually determining which of two valid rights is more important than which action is correct and which is wrong. You must be comfortable with nuance to enjoy this course. The Court uses four adjectives - fundamental (rights), compelling (reasons), rational (reasoning) and suspect (discrimination criteria). What does each of these adjectives mean? Their explanation and use can be frustrating. The course’s most challenging communication issue results from the legislative preference for the “not” format. The list of things we are not permitted to do is far shorter than the list of actions we are allowed so laws are predominately worded “One shall not…” When the Court disagrees with a law in this format it must use the double negative i.e. “the Court invalidated the prohibition of…………” Two of the following words: not, unconstitutional, invalidate, prohibit, proscribe, incorrect, misunderstood, disapprove, inappropriate, and illegitimate are frequently used in the same sentence causing me to push “pause” and think “Now what did they say the party could do?” Similarly, I wish Professor Finn would tell us what he does mean, rather than what he doesn’t mean e.g. “I don’t believe and I’m not suggesting…. I mean nothing of the sort.” After listening to the last lecture and reviewing the book, I immediately restarted the course from the beginning. I needed the first pass to become comfortable with the aforementioned issues. Overall, it was very good and caused me to evaluate issues I never had contemplated.
Date published: 2013-06-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Passionate Speaker Makes the content enjoyable and makes you feel very involved. Brings out ideas/concepts about Supreme Court decisions that make the topic come alive.
Date published: 2013-06-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intellectually Stimulating Course Professor Finn convincingly demonstrates his vast command of the Bill of Rights decisions of the Supreme Court, and his course provided numerous ideas for my own work in a related field. The text accompanying the course, with short descriptions of all the leading cases, was the best of all the Teaching Company course booklets I have seen. Paradoxically, however, Professor Finn seems to be not much of an enthusiast for the remarkable protection of individual liberty offered by the Bill of Rights. He seems forever worried about judicial review intruding on the democratic will and the state's police power, and is often more concerned with the problem of judicial legislation than with the protection of the individual against state power. Professor Finn is of course entitled to his own opnions, but these views give the course a somewhat ironic tinge.
Date published: 2013-04-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Difficult presentation Why doesn't the material sink in more easily? It could be the style of Finn's presentation. Although earnest, his strained tone of voice would annoy any jury, and he reads convoluted passages of Court opinion badly - as if not really paying attention (perhaps backed up by his unhelpful aside that he would prefer surgery to working on Saturday). He can be a bit long winded and his general speaking rhythm makes him harder to follow, especially cutting in immediately with his commentary, leaving no space at all to digest the oratory - as if wanting to leave the audience unbalanced. Leave that stuff in the courtroom. The Teaching Co.'s mission is to make itself amenable to a wider, though still educated, audience. This is the first course - and I have listened to many - where I have trouble retaining the whole picture. Perhaps it's the lack of pattern in the diverse cases and judges. Maybe it's the presentation. Or maybe it's just me. Hard to say. No doubt, there is a lot of material and I'm sure he chose a lot of important cases. The Court has produced some admirable judges. However, overall, and perhaps to Finn's credit, this course was quite deeply unsettling - showing how easily the law is vulnerable to abuse at the hands of judges (some on the present court) who impose their own personal preferences.
Date published: 2012-11-27
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointing Prof. Finn does not use words economically. An editor could reduce these lectures to one-tenth their current size by excising the frequent resort to foreshadowing, repetition, backtracking to make mincing distinctions of little importance, and stock phrases to address his own confusion. As an example, he often stops to say, "I hope you can understand why such-and-such a point leaves us in great difficulty." Honestly: if he'd put his effort into making a cogent argument for why the point is difficult, he'd have used his time better than in expressing an unfounded hope that his listeners would simply intuit his meaning. He makes hard work of trivial distinctions while glossing over difficult ones. His style of argument includes incessant loopbacks to fuss over an exact word: "This introduces a secondary point -- or perhaps I should say a SECOND point," or "it's a different kind of issue, or perhaps I should say a different CHARACTER of issue." His very frequent interjections of the all-purpose placemarker "I want to be very careful here" only slow the lectures down further. Constitutional law already suffers from the difficulty that its precepts are extremely abstract. It doesn't help to have a lecturer who runs out the clock with an endless stream of sentences stuffed with empty, abstract words: "I can't say -- I would not say -- whether the majority's interpretation of the precedents is superior to the dissent's interpretation of the precedents. That I will leave to you as you read the case for yourself. But try not to read [the case] in exclusion. You can't really determine whether the majority's interpretation of precedent is superior to the dissent's interpretation of precedent without reading [the case] in conjunction with all of the cases that preceded it. Nor can I say whether or not history and tradition counsel toward an expansive concept -- an expanding concept -- of individual liberty, or whether or not we should read it in the more narrow fashion that the majority adopted." Frankly, that's word salad that could be showered on any case. Finn's overarching point, that the Supreme Court adopts fuzzy abstract balancing tests that are difficult to apply to future cases and leave us all in constant doubt, was obvious before I began the course. In a couple of dozen lecturers, a Constitutional expert ought to be able to do better than that.
Date published: 2012-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Parsing what the meaning of "is" is First off, this is an EXCELLENT course delivered by a thoughtful Constitutional Law expert, Professor Finn. The key here is thoughtful. Professor Finn exhibits the kind of painful analysis that goes into Supreme Court rulings. One would hope that such deliberative agony would go into every court ruling and the good professor takes you on a vicarious journey through the thinking of the Justices throughout our history; showing all the models, analogs, rules, concepts, responsibilities, logic, reasoning and justification that represents this tortured process and renders, to us, sometimes counter intuitive rulings. I first thought that the entire Bill of Rights would be presented, and, most of them are. There is nothing on the 2nd nor 8th. But, generally, he focuses not on "rights" but on "civil liberties" and tells us why they are not the same. All the famous, landmark decisions are discussed in detail and a few infamous ones as well. To lay people, outside academia and the legal profession the Professor's style may seem a little fussy, picky and parsing, but that's what lawyers, lawmakers and judges do. They sometimes parse out what the meaning of "is" is. All in an attempt to insure our rights and civil liberties. If you want the Full Monty in Supreme Court Rulings analysis, you will not be disappoointed.
Date published: 2012-07-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting Not sure what I expected: more of an "original intent" sort of presentation, I guess. In contrast, this is more of a review of cases from various courts interpreting the Bill of Rights. I got bogged down and gave up about half way through.
Date published: 2012-06-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Mincing words I purchased this course because the topic is central to American life and democracy, and found the course content to be well chosen (with a few glaring exceptions, e.g. nothing about the 8th Amendment). However, Professor's style is mincing. He tracks, backtracks, equivocates, and has so many verbal tics this listener found himself thinking: "Get on with it." The best lecturers organize their material in such a way that the topic flows — as if naturally. The ability to present complex topics fluidly is a great gift, but unfortunately, not one that this professor has mastered.
Date published: 2012-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrifically Informative These 36 lectures are terrifically informative. I feel that my knowledge of our constitutional system has advanced quite a bit. I recommend these courses most highly. Relative to Professor Irons course on the Constitution there is no comparison- these are much better. I do have a few negative comments, however. 1. The occasional ‘hand ringing’ and reminder that we are dealing with ‘real people’ was unnecessary and distracting. 2. There seemed to be some verbal ‘padding’, particularly at the beginning. 3. The lecture on the Lochner decision, early in the series, which the professor does not agree with, gave rise to an emotional outpouring by him that was as some point difficult to listen to. Oddly, this lecture followed one on the ‘Incorporation Doctrine’ (this is the idea that the Bill of Rights, which originally only impacted the federal government, would be applied to the states), which, although obviously was ‘just made up’, did not attract the professor’s ire. But more about this below. 4. It is hard, if not impossible, to look over the decisions of the Supreme Court and not be concerned that the justices may be engaging in social engineering under the guise of interpretation. This is an idea that, in all fairness, Professor Finn does touch on a number of times. This is a significant subject, which, if true, would amount to a usurpation of power by one of the three major branches of the federal governmental. This subject is certainly worth one lecture. Perhaps most of the final lecture, which seemed to be more padding, could have been spent on this subject. I consider these to be minor criticisms and feel that of the 50 or so lecture series from the Teaching Company that I have purchased this is one of the best. Finally, I feel that I must comment on some of the reviewers complaining, in my opinion unfairly, that Professor Finn is advancing some sort of ‘right wing’ agenda. Typical was one reviewer’s reference, in this regard, to the professor’s statement regarding the ‘police powers’ of the states. The professor stated that this is an accepted constitutional doctrine, which it is. He is clearly not advancing it as his own preference, which it may or may not be. Finally, he is not recommending that we institute a police state, which seems to be suggested by the reviewer. Another reviewer complained that too much time was given to quoting Scalia. Perhaps this is because Scalia (a) has written opinions on quite a number of important cases, and (b) is highly articulate.
Date published: 2012-02-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful presentation of a complex topic A course on the bill of rights has all the potential to be presented in a factually truthful way, but guaranteed to put a person to sleep. Dr. Finn doesn't fall into that trap. He brings clarity, energy and enough interesting anecdotes about the authors and interpreters of this precious document to make it emotional rather than factual. I've listened to it twice, and i'll listen to it a few more times, because its dense information, presented in an entertaining fashion.
Date published: 2011-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Every citizen needs to know This course is a well executed, broad overview of Constitutional jurisprudence as it pertains to civil liberty and the Bill or Rights. It (or something similar in its stead) should be required listening for every citizen. He does not go into great detail in the various cases discussed but offers a brief account of the facts and then the salient points from the opinions. There is a great deal of material to be covered in a short time and I thought this coverage sufficient enough for the purpose of the course. Detailed references are provided for further reading. I'll agree with an earlier reviewer in that the presenter is somewhat self-indulgent, although I don't believe this detracted much from my enjoyment of the course. At risk of nitpicking, his vitriol directed at the Southern states and a somewhat myopic view of slavery were awkward. At the turn of the 18th century the northern states were as complicit as those in the south. Overall, highly recommended.
Date published: 2011-08-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and relevant This is hands-down the best course I've ever listened to from the Teaching Company. Dr. Finn covers several of the Amendments to the Constitution in great detail so that the non-lawyer can understand not only what the Court decided but how it reached its decision. By the end of the course when I read about a Supreme Court decision in the paper I had learned to ask "what is the liberty interest involved?" and several other questions that Dr. Finn taught should be used in approaching a decision. Dr. Finn emphasizes an approach that involves understanding the application of the law and judicial reasoning rather than just learning what the current holdings are in various areas. He constantly reminds us that cases are not abstractions to be solved but reflect real people with real conflicts. The course presents an honest appraisal of the judicial process, and leaves the listener with lessons that can be applied virtually every time one hears the news of a new Supreme Court decision.
Date published: 2011-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from They Just Make It Up What impressed me most about this excellent course was Finn's demonstration of the intellectual bankruptcy -- not to say incoherence -- of much of the Supreme Court's constitutional jurisprudence, especially regarding privacy and equal protection. It's hard to disagree with his not-so-implicit suggestion throughout these lectures that the Court, all too often, simply makes up standards, rules, and tests to justify its rulings, without reference to the text of the Constitution, its original meaning, or the intent of its framers and ratifiers. Unlike Peter Irons, who did TTC's History of the Supreme Court and makes no effort to hide his liberalism, Finn does not reveal his own political views, though he frequently seems to privilege the community's interests over those of individuals. He calls for greater involvement of elected officials and other non-judges in constitutional interpretation, and urges legislative majorities to amend the constitution to impose their social preferences when courts issue politically unpopular rulings. Indirectly but unmistakably, he champions use of the state's alleged "police power" (not further explained, sourced, justified, or limited) to suppress non-conforming minorities for the sake of "moral regulation" of society. The ayatollahs and talibanis in our midst will surely take his hint. All of this makes me uncomfortable. As I see it, we need constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties precisely to protect unpopular minorities from oppression by the state, acting at the behest of electoral majorities. Legislatures are frequently the source of injustices that judges have a legitimate role in correcting. Finn is a fluent and engaging speaker, though overly self-indulgent. He will never use a short word when a long one is available. Why insist, for instance, on saying "utilize" when "use" saves you two whole syllables? If you can get past the annoying jargon, though, this is a useful and insightful course.
Date published: 2011-02-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Constitutional Law for Non-Lawyers Audio CD. In some respects, this is TTC at its best – presenting college-level material on subjects of general interest that few life-long learners would have the time to take in college. This course is excellent for somebody with an interest in American government. It presents the evolution of Constitutional thought on civil rights (which is not limited to the Bill of Rights, nor does it encompass all of the Bill of Rights). It introduces how Constitutional policy is established, and not always by the Supreme Court. It introduces important legal terms and concepts in a way that can be appreciated by people outside the legal profession. It addresses controversial subjects (e.g., abortion) in a balanced way. I hope Dr. Finn does some more courses for TTC.
Date published: 2010-11-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating, excellent presentation This is a fascinating and well done course. Anyone without a formal legal background who wants to vote intelligently and follow the national issues relating to civil rights and the Supreme Court should listen to this course. The lecturer is clear and interesting throughout.
Date published: 2010-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear Presentation The course was focused on Supreme Court cases. His focus was on explaining why the decisions were made - the doctrines, tests, etc. I found the presentation clear, and I have a much better understanding of how these decisions are made.
Date published: 2010-09-21
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Tedious, but good As someone who has no knowledge of law beyond the a 12th grade understanding of civics and government, I found this course to be enlightening. However, for a novice like myself, there are times when it can get tedious as Finn goes into some very nitty-gritty legal concepts. Some of the topics covered in this course will interest certain people more than others. Personally, I enjoyed the discussions on the 1st and 2nd Amendments as well as the discussion on the abortion controversy most. Other people will enjoy the discussion on other amendments depending on one's background. Overall, I'd say this is a good course by a great instructor, but I would recommend other courses before this one, especially if you aren't really into legal theory.
Date published: 2010-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Essential Education for Today As we may anticipate the next Supreme Court ruling on a case before them, or observe the confirmation of a new judge, when well armed with Professor Finn’s course, we may well realize just how human and flawed this judicial process is. I don’t know if it was his intention, but I was left with the distinct feeling that in the search many justices may make to find explicit words in the Constitution to settle a given issue before them, those words are simply not there, and never could possibly be. For that is our human condition. Professor Finn’s course is important, and well done. It cannot help but be disturbing because Supreme Court Decisions are virtually never tidy, where you may well side with dissenting opinions, and be dismayed with the prevailing ones. What is important is to have a skilled guide through this morass of decisions on matters of civil liberties, and are lead to realize that their will never be a final say-so on any issue. I disagree with earlier reviewers that claim a conservative bias by the instructor, by citing judge Scalia on several decisions. If anything, such citing tend to show that such a voice on the court is a serious matter that one must contend with, however much you may disagree with such a voice. If there is any bias I noticed it has to do with property rights. I had thought of property as being just real property such as land, or patented and copyrighted material and had not realized the extent of the definition of property, until these lectures. But I am left with the feeling that with certain decisions, Prof. Finn sees real property rights as being significantly weakened. If my interpretation is correct, I would disagree. On a personal note, the only objections I have to the presentation is the habit of rephrasing or rewording, to the point of becoming annoying, saying such as, “or perhaps I should say.” Secondly without the notes in front of you, you can get lost in his discussion of arguments, without being introduced to the case and the decision. In any case, you best do your homework. I unequivocally, highly recommend this course as a rigorous, knowledgeable, skillful and important introduction to the Supreme Court, the complexity of civil rights cases before the court, and the evident diversity of views, frailties, biases, and brilliance the various judges have brought to bear on decisions and opinions made, and now part of our permanent record over the past 200 years. This is an essential course.
Date published: 2010-05-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from American Liberties This is a course that presents a complex and controversial area of jurisprudnce in as incisive and clear manner as I've seen. Like the last reviewer, I'm a law school graduate of several years past. Concepts that were then foggy and sometimes nearly overwhelming to me (such is law school, intentionally so) are presented here so their essence makes clear and common sense. A familiarity with basic constitutional law will of course make the material more readily accessible. But that familiarity is not a prerequisite. With some disciplined effort, valuable knowledge and insights are there for the seeker. The course is also well organized and presented. I enjoyed Professor Finn's stimulating intensity (even though at times his accelerator does get stuck in high gear) and his unbiased approached. Well done. Excellent course on the continuing struggle to define this unfolding of American freedoms and culture, essentially the balancing of individual liberties and community interests.
Date published: 2009-12-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent It's been a long time since I graduated from law school, and I wanted a review of this important area of Constitutional law. This course is simply excellent. I completely DISAGREE with the reviewer who said the professor was biased in his presentation. The law generated by the Supreme Court concerning the Bill of Rights is indeed complex, but Professor Finn has done a better job with it than anyone else I have ever heard. Anyone interested in the law or the Supreme Court (and definitely all prospective law students) should buy this course. (I listened on CD and can perceive no need to have it on DVD.) My only reservation is that, at some point, there will need to be a second edition, to reflect the Court's continuing development of case law. I hope TTC will proceed with that update. In any event, this course is excellent.
Date published: 2009-12-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Vital Information Superbly Presented I purchased the audio version, and found Professor Finn’s voice friendly, clear and easy to understand. I felt the lectures sometimes seemed a tad slow, but I’m not an attorney. Someone more familiar with the law might find these lectures move along quickly. Dr. Finn seemed evenhanded and unbiased to me. While another reviewer felt the professor was too conservative, I had just the opposite reaction. The truth must lie somewhere in between. I was disappointed that the course leaves out the 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments. Finn says these are “typically covered in courses on criminal procedure.” I’ll have to learn about Miranda v. Arizona (5th), as well as 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller (2nd), etc., elsewhere. Lecture 34, Brown v. Board of Education, was probably the best of all the lectures. We are told that the opinion handed down by Earl Warren’s Court “reads like a sermon,” and Professor Finn is clearly and dramatically proud of the decision ... and of America. We finally got it right. I liked this course sufficiently to order TTC’s companion course, “The History of the Supreme Court.” Hearing some of the same landmark cases discussed by another professor will help this important material sink in further.
Date published: 2009-11-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Intensive, But Totally Worthwhile This is an excellent course that greatly expands ones knowledge and appreciation of the civil liberties in our society. However, the title and course description could use a little clarification, as the content is somewhat different from what one might expect. In looking at the history of civil liberties in the U.S. since the drafting of the Bill of Rights, this course conducts virtually all of its examination through the lens of the Supreme Court and its rulings. Although this course naturally covers many social issues, it is not a social sciences course. It is very much a law school course, focused almost entirely on the evolution of civil liberties through Court rulings. The course is also fairly demanding for people with no formal background or education in law (like me). It is an intense, graduate-school level course that requires some significant concentration. Some lectures are so rich in unfamiliar legal concepts that I found myself going back and listening to a few of them over again so I could fully absorb what was being explained. BUT...let me stress that none of the above is meant as criticism. I thoroughly enjoyed the course, and it gave me an immensely better understanding of the history and issues behind civil liberties and, yes, the Bill of Rights. It requires some extra effort for a non-legal-professional like myself, but it was completely worth it. The course notes are also very useful, and I would also recommend looking up particularly important Supreme Court rulings on the Internet to get an even fuller understanding of some of the topics covered. One note: I must disagree with another reviewer who sees a right-leaning bias in Professor Finn's talks. To the contrary, Finn goes out of his way to present both sides of almost every case without ever indicating which side he favors. Indeed, sometimes I *wanted* him to take a position, if only to give me a reference point for my own thinking. No, bias is definitely not an issue here.
Date published: 2009-09-24
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