Civil Liberties


Robert P. George
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions

Explore the moral basis of controversial claims of civil rights and liberties by carefully considering the evidence and reasons presented by notable thinkers and in groundbreaking Supreme Court opinions.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

These stirring words from the Declaration of Independence are at the very foundation of the American tradition of civil liberties. In this course, we explore this tradition from its beginning with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, through a number of notable historical and contemporary cases in which claims to rights and liberties have been at stake. 

We will examine issues of slavery, segregation, abortion, campaign finance, free speech, religion, affirmative action, and marriage.  Our discussion will be guided by thinkers like John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, and Martin Luther King, as well as important Supreme Court opinions, such as the majority and dissenting opinions in Dred Scott v. Sandford (on slavery), Brown v. Board of Education (on segregation), Roe v. Wade (on abortion), Citizens United v. FEC. (on campaign finance and free speech), and Obergefell v. Hodges (on marriage).

We do not seek unanimity of opinion, but rather a deepening of understanding. Whatever your views happen to be—liberal, conservative, whatever—they will be sympathetically explored but also challenged. The goal of the course is not to persuade you to think as anyone else does; rather, it is to encourage and empower you to think about disputed questions of civil rights and liberties more deeply, more critically, and for yourself.

You will learn:

  • The historical foundations of civil rights and liberties in the United States
  • How influential philosophers have thought about important civil rights issues
  • The arguments presented in groundbreaking Supreme Court opinions
  • How to critically analyze controversial claims to civil rights and liberties
  • An understanding and respect for those who have differing opinions


Course Status

Opened September 13, 2018

What Learners Say

 "I feel greatly privileged to being able to have free access to this enlightening, riveting course. I learned a huge amount and feel much improved as a person and as a citizen. Well done, Professor George and Princeton. You have done an important public service by making this course available to the world. Many, many thanks." 

"Thank you for an incredible learning experience! "

"Things I loved: 1. Learning from Professor George. 2. The overall course structure with weekly topics that built on each other. 3. Having lectures with supplemental readings. 4. The goals and accountability each week. The knowledge checks, quizzes and discussion question were great for keeping me focused. 5. The lists of source material to further dig into these topics. 6. The fact that I'm now Princeton educated ;) I will be returning to this material again and again, I cannot thank you enough for this course."