Ken Burns Classroom

Investigating Electronic Surveillance from Olmstead vs. US to modern day

Ken Burns Film: Prohibition

Collections: Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

Subject: Civics Government US History

Grade Level: 9-12

Run Time: 1 class period

Lesson Overview:

In this activity, students will examine the text of the Fourth Amendment and its protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and explore where these protections are not always granted.

Lesson Objectives (Students will…)

  • Form conclusions regarding how individual rights frequently clash with the need for law enforcement to collect evidence and punish individuals who have violated the law.
  • Identify the ways in which social mores and attitudes regarding interpretation of law and the Constitution change over time.

Lesson Methodology:

  1. Write the text of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on the board or make it available to students as a handout or on the overhead projector:
    • The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
    • The teacher should also point students to the Fifth Amendment provision protecting persons from self-incrimination. (No person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself….)
  2. After students have had an opportunity to read the text of the Fourth Amendment, ask them to brainstorm what is protected, or not protected, from search under the amendment’s terms. Most high-school-aged students will probably point first to vehicular searches, but others may relate to locker searches, personal searches at school, or mandated drug testing. The teacher may also wish to ask students to consider searching e-mail accounts or social networking accounts as a possible area of contended search. The teacher can write these ideas on the board, or a student volunteer may do so. Once students have had an opportunity to share ideas, move to the next phase of the opening activity.
  3. Explain to students that in the next activity they will analyze how Fourth Amendment protections did not apply to a wiretapping case during Prohibition and how these protections were later upheld in a similar case. Students will explore how different Supreme Courts can strike down previous decisions when social expectations and the makeup of the Supreme Court justices change.
  4. Divide the class into groups of 3 or 4 students. Distribute the “Opening Activity Opinion” form to each student. Instruct students to complete it while they watch the video segments The Good Bootlegger and Whispering Wires. Students should look for information in the clips that indicates whether the actions of the police and other authorities violated Olmstead’s Fourth Amendment rights, or whether law enforcement officials were justified in collecting information about Olmstead. Students should consider whether the use of wiretaps against Olmstead further constituted a violation of his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. If needed, the teacher may choose to show the clips again as a follow-up.
  5. After viewing the clips, students should take a few moments to discuss what they saw, and determine whether the circumstances behind the Olmstead case were legitimate or illegal. Ask each group to report their findings to the class. Instruct students to keep their “Opening Activity Opinion” form to assist them in the case study activity.

Extension Activities:

Have students use the “Opening Activity Opinion” sheet as a guideline to write newspaper editorials, op-ed pieces, or blogs supporting or criticizing the Olmstead decision. The teacher should assign each student the role of writing an editorial supporting the decision, or an op-ed piece criticizing the Supreme Court’s opinion in the case. Students might read their editorials or op-ed columns to the class and allow other students to critique them, or go online to read each other’s blogs and leave appropriate critiques as comments on the blogs.

Academic Standards:

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: Opening Activity Opinion Sheet

In the spaces below, take notes on the video clips that will help you form conclusions about the Olmstead vs. United States case. Be sure to look for particular facts about Olmstead, his personality, and bootlegging activity in The Good Bootlegger, as well as facts of the case against him, his conviction, and appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in Whispering Wires.

Notes from The Good Bootlegger segment






Notes from the Whispering Wires segment






Information from the clips that supports the argument that the government violated Olmstead’s Fourth and/or Fifth Amendment rights: