Ken Burns Classroom

Investigating Electronic Surveillance from Olmstead vs. US to modern day: Case Study Activity

Ken Burns Film: Prohibition

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: Government US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 2 class periods

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students work in groups to complete a “case study” activity examining the Fourth and Fifth Amendments through the cases of Olmstead vs. U.S. (1928) and Katz vs. U.S. (1967), which overturned the Olmstead case.

Lesson Objectives (Students will…)

  • Explain the process by which the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution and writes opinions on cases.
  • Develop conclusions regarding how individual rights frequently clash with the need of law enforcement to collect evidence and punish violators of the law.
  • Identify and record how social mores and attitudes regarding interpretation of law and the Constitution change over time. 

Lesson Methodology:

  1. Introduce the idea of a Supreme Court case study. Explain to the class that the purpose of the case study is not only to identify the facts of the case and render a decision, but also to investigate the issues and arguments of its principles. To help students better understand this, you might use a previously studied Supreme Court case as an example of developing a case study.
  2. Remind students that as they complete the case study for Olmstead vs. United States, they should consider the intents of both the Fourth Amendment regarding unreasonable search and seizure and the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination and the guarantee of due process of law. Indicate to students that interpretations of constitutional issues sometimes change as the makeup of the Supreme Court changes and as the nation’s customs and philosophies about issues change. Use examples to support this point (e.g., Dred Scott vs. Sanford, Plessy vs.Ferguson, Brown vs. Board of Education, Korematsu vs. United States).
  3. Next, distribute thePreparing the Case Study andCase Study Activity handouts to each student. Divide the class into groups of 7 students each. Three students will act as “judges,” two of the remaining students will act as attorneys for the plaintiff, and the other two will act as attorneys for the respondent. Assign the Olmstead case to half of the groups and the Katz decision to the other half.
  4. Allow sufficient time for each member of the group to research their case. Make sure the students follow the preparation notes on the “Preparing the Case Study” handout.
    • Attorneys (plaintiff or respondent) should focus on how they want the case to be decided, develop arguments that favor their side, anticipate arguments against their side, and consider the impact of the decision (what’s at stake) for their side and society as a whole.
    • Judges should preview the details and issues involved in the case and collaboratively develop five to seven questions to ask the attorneys regarding the facts of the case, the constitutional basis for their positions, and the potential impact on society of their decision in the case. Judges should also take notes during the oral arguments that will assist them in coming to a decision in the case.
  5. Once students have had time to research their assigned case, separate groups to allow for as much privacy as possible for deliberations (for example, if the class has four groups, assign each group a specific corner of the classroom for their case study deliberations). Have them follow the case study schedule on their handouts.
  6. At the conclusion of the case study deliberation period, one student from each group should summarize the case, arguments, and decision. Have the groups that decided the Olmstead case summarize their decision first, and then have those groups that decided the Katz case give their summation. Justices with opposing views should be allowed to post their dissenting opinions.
  7. Culminating Activity: Have students write a reflective essay describing their experience in the case study. This essay should include the following points:
    • The title of the case the group studied
    • A brief description of the facts of the case
    • Positions held by the prosecution and defendant
    • How the case was decided by the student judges, and why
    • How the case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, and why
    • The student’s reason for agreeing or disagreeing with the moot court and U.S. Supreme Court decisions


Once students have completed the lesson, the teacher should assess student work by using either an assessment instrument or rubric approved by the school or district, or a teacher- created rubric. A suggested rubric is included below that may be used as is or adapted to meet teacher objectives.

NOTE: In order to adequately evaluate student participation in the case study, the teacher should plan to “float” among the various groups and randomly observe students involved in each group’s presentation.

Academic Standards:

This lesson fits the following academic standards set by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) (


Standard 1: Understands ideas about civic life, politics, and government

Benchmark 5: Understands competing ideas about the purposes government should serve (e.g., whether government should protect individual rights, promote the common good, provide economic security, mold the character of citizens, promote a particular religion)

Benchmark 2: Knows formal institutions that have the authority to make and implement binding decisions (e.g., tribal councils, courts, monarchies, democratic legislatures)

Benchmark 3: Understands the nature of political authority (e.g., characteristics such as legitimacy, stability, limitations)

Benchmark 4: Understands the sources of political authority (e.g., consent of the governed, birth, knowledge) and its functions (e.g., create and enforce laws)

Benchmark 8: Understands how the purposes served by a government affect relationships between the individual and government and between government and society as a whole (e.g., the purpose of promoting a religious vision of what society should be like may require a government to restrict individual thought and actions, and place strict controls on the whole of the society)

Standard 18: Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights.

Benchmark 1: Understands how the rule of law makes possible a system of ordered liberty that protects the basic rights of citizens

Benchmark 6: Understands the effects of Americans relying on the legal system to solve social, economic, and political problems rather than using other means, such as private negotiations, mediation, and participation in the political process

Benchmark 8: Knows historical and contemporary instances in which judicial protections have not been extended to all persons and instances in which judicial protections have been extended to those deprived of them in the past

United States History:

Standard 22: Understands how the United States changed between the post-World War I years and the eve of the Great Depression

Benchmark 1: Understands the various social conflicts that took place in the early 1920s (e.g., state and federal government reactions to the growth of radical political movements, rising racial tensions and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, the Garvey Movement, the clash between traditional moral values and changing ideas as exemplified in the Scopes trial and Prohibition, how the restriction of European immigration affected Mexican American immigration)


About The Authors

Greg Timmons

Greg Timmons has been a social studies teacher for over 30 years. He has written lessons for several PBS productions including The NewsHour, FRONTLINE, and various Ken Burns’s productions including The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea Baseball, Prohibition and The Dust Bowl.” He resides in Montana and Washington state.

Handout: Preparing the Case Study

Overview: In this case study, your group will review issues regarding the right of protection against unreasonable search and protection against self- incrimination. The attorney groups will argue their case on its constitutional merits before the three-judge panel. Follow the attorneys’ guide below to prepare for your case. Judges will also prepare for the case by becoming familiar with the issues involved. Follow the judges’ guide below.

Guide to the Attorneys’ Role:

Olmstead vs. United States

In this case, the petitioner is Roy Olmstead, a Seattle bootlegger convicted of violating the National Prohibition Act (the “Volstead Act”) in part due to evidence collected by law enforcement officials by “wiretapping” his telephone conversations without a court- issued warrant. The respondent is the United States government, which collected the information and filed the charges against Olmstead. The government contends that it followed correct procedural due process in collecting the evidence against Olmstead.

Katz vs. United States

In this case, the petitioner is Charles Katz, a Los Angeles bookie convicted of transmitting illegal gambling information from Los Angeles to Boston and Miami. The respondent is the United States government, which collected evidence against Katz by connecting an eavesdropping device to the outside of a phone booth that Katz used to make wagers. It contends that it followed correct procedural due process in collecting the evidence against Katz.

Guide to the Judges’ Role:

Pick one of you to be the lead judge. You will monitor the attorneys’ presentation time and make sure all judges get to ask questions. You will also report to the class the findings of your court at the end of the activity.

Preparation for each Attorney Group:

  • How does your side (petitioner or respondent) want the case to be decided?
  • What are the arguments that favor your side?
  • What are the arguments against your side? (Anticipating the opposition can strengthen your argument.)
  • What’s at stake here for your side and for society?

Preparation for Judges:

  • Before attorney presentations, preview the details and issues of the case
  • As a group, develop 5 to 7 questions to ask the attorneys regarding the facts of the case, the constitutional basis for their position, and the potential impact on society of a decision either way on this case.
  • Take notes during the oral arguments to assist you in delivering your decision (see step 3, below).

Case Study Schedule:

  1. Each attorney group has five minutes to present their arguments. Judges can ask relevant questions at any time during or after the presentations.
  2. After both attorneys have presented their cases, the judges convene in a “closed door” session for five minutes to arrive at a decision. During your deliberations, discuss the following:
    • The facts of the case
    • How did each side want the case to be settled?
    • The arguments for each side. Which attorney group was the most persuasive, and why?
    • Which side (petitioner or respondent) will you decide for? (You don’t all have to agree. The decision is based on majority vote, but there can be dissenting opinions.)
    • What do you believe is the impact of your decision? How will your ruling affect the litigants of the case and society?
  3. The judges’ decision should contain all the information from the list of deliberation topics above.

Handout: Case Study Activity (Attorneys)

Attorneys’ Names:  ____________________________________________________

Side Represented (petitioners or respondents): ______________________________

What are the facts of the case (what actions led to this case coming to the court?):



What were the position and arguments of the petitioner?



What were the position and arguments of the respondent?



What constitutional issues were involved in this case?



How would you have ruled in this case (if you had been a judge)?



How did the Court rule on this case?


Handout: Case Study Activity (Judges)

Judges’ names:  __________________________________________

What questions (5–7) do we want to ask the petitioner and respondent?



Which side’s arguments (petitioner or respondent) were most persuasive? What made us feel that way?



Which side do we decide for?  ____________________________

Reasons for majority opinion:



Reasons for dissenting opinion:



Handout: Case Study Rubric

Category Excellent (15–10) Good (9–5) Fair (4–2) Poor (1–0) Student Score
Research Case Study and Opening Activity sheets totally completed Case Study and Opening Activity sheets generally completed Case Study and Opening Activity sheets somewhat completed Case Study and Opening Activity sheets not completed
Clear Expression of Ideas Arguments (if attorney) or decision (if judge) is easy to understand and logical Arguments (if attorney) or decision (if judge) generally clear and logical Arguments (if attorney) or decision (if judge) somewhat clear and logical Arguments (if attorney) or decision (if judge) neither logical nor clear
Speaking Ability Student is clear and speaks distinctly Student is generally clear and speaks distinctly Student is somewhat clear and speaks somewhat distinctly Student is unclear and unable to convey ideas
Additional Criteria as set by the teacher
Final Student Score