Civil Liberties in Wartime
Grade level: 10-12
Subjects: U.S. Government, Civics, Sociology
The attacks of September 11, 2001 led to a declaration of a war on terrorism by President Bush.
As part of that war the Bush Administration proposed and Congress passed the USA Patriot Act which
gives the government increased power to gather information on and detain U.S. residents in order to
curtail activities related to terrorism. The act has been criticized by some as infringing on the
rights of citizens and giving the government unprecedented powers.
This lesson examines the civil liberties guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and how the conditions of
war might affect those liberties. Students will:
- review the rights and responsibilities of a citizen in a democratic system;
- study historical precedents for altering civil liberties during time of war;
- discuss and debate the pros and cons of the wartime curtailment of civil liberties;
- examine the role of the press in keeping citizens informed in light of the government's need to limit information during times of crisis.
Background for the Teacher
Before starting this lesson, if possible, watch Flashpoints USA (episode one - July 15, 2003)
and use the information on this Web site for background on the various measures proposed by the Bush
Administration in response to the events of September 11.
Students will have the opportunity to apply the following critical thinking skills:
- Summarize and re-state complex written material
- Note similarities and difference between historical and contemporary laws and policies
- Form opinions based on critical examination of relevant information
- Communicate orally and in writing
- Analyze and compare different sources of information for fairness and accuracy
- Detect bias in various forms of presentations, e.g., written, oral, pictorial
Tools and Materials
Paper and pen
Computers with Internet access
Understanding Civil Liberties
Before the first class session, give students the first three handouts listed above to read in preparation for the discussion below.
What are civil liberties?
(Briefly review the Bill of Rights.)
Do only legal citizens of the United States enjoy the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution?
What are the responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy such as ours? (e.g., vote, pay taxes, obey laws)
What recourse do citizens have if they don't agree with a particular law or with government policies?
Do the conditions of war justify changes in citizens' rights and responsibilities? Explain. (On the board list the reasons students give for and against.)
Analyzing the USA Patriot Act
and Other Anti-Terrorism Measures
USA PATRIOT is an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.
Ask: Why do you think the Act was given this particular name instead of something simpler, such as The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001?
Divide the students into groups to read and report on the provisions of the Patriot Act.
The Act is long, with ten sections or titles. Both Title I and Title VI can be skipped for the purposes
of this activity. It is suggested that you scan the contents section to see the length of each Title before
assigning sections of the Act to the different groups. You may want to allow time for students to download
and/or make copies of the Act in class.
After they have read their assigned sections, each group should summarize their section of the Act for the class.
Ask students to take notes on the summaries. After each summary, give students the opportunity to express any thoughts
or reactions they have and to make a note of anything they don't understand. As the students report on the Patriot Act,
ask for instances where they feel the provisions of the Act come up against the Bill of Rights, or where they think a
provision might be especially useful in deterring terrorism.
Have students compare their analyses of the Patriot Act with those of civil liberties groups such as the ACLU
and the Center for Constitutional Rights [www.ccr-ny.org].
The CCR site contains various reports dealing with civil liberties, including one entitled "The State of Civil Liberties:
One Year Later - Erosion of Civil Liberties in the Post 9/11 Era."
Arrange a point/counterpoint discussion of the question "Is the USA Patriot Act a threat to civil
liberties or a necessary strengthening of the government's hand to stop terrorism?"
Students can also examine these other measure proposed or passed by the Bush Administration:
Give students the
Civil Liberties After 9/11 Timeline
to read, either as a
homework assignment or in class. Ask them to jot down similarities and parallels between those earlier laws and
government activities and current laws and policies related to the war on terrorism. Have a discussion in class about
the similarities the students have noted.
Ask: Why are measures affecting civil liberties promulgated during times of crisis?
What has happened when individuals have attempted to speak out against restrictions or government leaders? Give examples, historical and contemporary.
Ask students to find out about the effectiveness of the measures described in the Timeline. Did they work?
Former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once said, "Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions.
It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us."
Ask students to write an essay reflecting on Douglas's quote.
Role of the Press
When it comes to safeguarding civil liberties, the press has a crucial role to play.
Its function is to keep the public informed about the activities of the government, in effect providing
citizen oversight of the government. For this reason, it is referred to as the "fourth estate," or the fourth
branch of government, wielding power on behalf of the people. In the war on terrorism, the press has come under
some criticism, particularly during the Operation Iraqi Freedom - which has been called a battle in the war on terrorism.
Some have accused the press of serving the government's purposes rather than maintaining a neutral voice.
Others say the press has given the American public an accurate and close-up account of the events in Iraq.
Have students examine the press's performance in the war on terrorism. Begin with a class discussion of these questions:
1) Should the government limit information in times of war or other crises? Why? In what ways might it do so? |
2) Was the use of embedded reporters during the Iraq war a good idea or not? What are the pros and cons of such a practice?
Have students analyze current news about U.S. activities in the Middle East and Central Asia (Afghanistan)
by looking at how it is reported in a variety of sources: US television networks; major US newspapers; the BBC; National
Public Radio; Al-Jazeera; online news services. Divide students into groups, each group following one news source for a week.
Students should then report whether the US is portrayed negatively or positively. Included in their reports should be the following:
descriptive words used in news reporting; types of visuals used; sources quoted; experts interviewed. Have students bring
examples of articles or news broadcasts to show the class. Compare the different news media.
Ask: Which ones give the most balanced reporting?
How can you tell if a report is balanced and fair?
Is there any value in getting news from several different sources? Explain.
www.fair.org contains analyses of news
stories and links to a wide variety of foreign and domestic news sources.
The NewsHour Extra www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/features/jan-june03/embed_3-27.html features an excellent overview of the pros and cons of the embedded journalist program.
Each side in the war on terrorism has accused the other of using propaganda to further
its position and goals. Have students examine news stories, editorials, speeches, and commentary for
instances of propaganda. An excellent source on propaganda techniques is found at
CNN Student News: Explore the Balance Between National Security and Civil Liberties
First Amendment Schools
NewsHour Extra: The USA Patriot Act
NOW: Classroom - Foreign War and Domestic Freedom: A Delicate Balancing Act
PBS: America Responds Classroom Resources
USA Freedom Corps: For Educators
About the Author
Karen Zill is the former Manager of Educational Outreach at WETA, Washington, D.C. She is currently an
independent consultant who writes educational materials, develops outreach campaigns, and conducts media literacy classes and workshops.
This lesson correlates to the following Civics Standards [From Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning www.mcrel.org].
What are the Roles of the Citizen in American Democracy?
24. Understands the meaning of citizenship in the United States, and knows the requirements for citizenship and naturalization |
25. Understands issues regarding personal, political, and economic rights
26. Understands issues regarding the proper scope and limits of rights and the relationships among personal, political, and economic rights
27. Understands how certain character traits enhance citizens' ability to fulfill personal and civic responsibilities
28. Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals
29. Understands the importance of political leadership, public service, and a knowledgeable citizenry in American constitutional democracy