Ken Burns Classroom

The Roots of Prohibition: Laws That Regulate Behavior

Lesson Overview: In this activity, students will explore several laws that regulate personal behavior. These are composite examples of laws either proposed or passed in communities across the country. Students are to review the laws and discuss their necessity, their positive and negative effects on personal freedom and public good, and whether the laws should be amended or repealed.

Lesson Objectives: (Students will…)

  • Examine and debate laws that regulate personal behavior.
  • Work collaboratively in groups to debate and report on the issues of personal freedom, the public good, and the law.

Lesson Procedure:

  1. On the board or screen, write the following: “Write down three laws that affect your personal choice and one individual reason why you think those laws were enacted.” Ask students to identify several laws that affect personal choice. They might select laws that regulate or restrict smoking in public, physician-assisted suicide, gay marriage, medical marijuana, or abortion.
  2. Discuss why such laws exist. Whose rights are protected and whose rights might be violated? Why are some of these laws more successfully enforced than others? How do time and changes in people’s attitudes affect the way such laws are obeyed?
  3. Often, laws like these are enacted with the best of intentions, usually to protect people’s health and well-being. But to some, they seem to impose one person’s or group’s values on others. Explain that some people feel people should take personal responsibility and not have the government impose restrictions on them that they can impose (or not) on themselves.
  4. Organize students into groups of three to five. Have each group designate one member as a recorder to take notes.
  5. Distribute the handout “Proposed Laws Regulating Personal Behavior” to each group or display the handout on an LCD projector. Have the groups review each law and determine whether they agree or disagree with the law and why. The groups don’t have to arrive at a consensus, but all members’ opinions should be heard. Have the recorder write down everyone’s reasoning and be prepared to share the findings later with the class.
  6. After the groups have finished their review of the proposed government regulations, have a spokesperson from each report the group’s findings to the class. Then discuss the following questions.

Discussion questions:

  • Why might some people think such laws are needed? Who might benefit from these laws?
  • How might any of these laws restrict some people’s rights? Who might be negatively affected by them?
  • Do you feel these laws benefit the many at the expense of the few, or the other way around? Explain why.
  • Do you feel these laws should stay as is, be amended, or be repealed? Explain how.


Students can be assessed on their participation in class discussions, thoughtful participation in group work, and the detail and thoroughness of their worksheet responses.


Have students research a contemporary controversial issue, such as school prayer or flag desecration, and apply the deliberation method.

Related Academic Subjects/Standards

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

Historical Understanding

Standard 2: Understands historical perspective

Level III: (Grades 7–8)

  • Understands that specific individuals and the values those individuals held had an impact on history
  • Analyzes the influence specific ideas and beliefs had on a period of history

Level IV (Grades 9–12)

  • Analyzes the values held by specific people who influenced history and the role their values played in influencing history
  • Analyzes the influences specific ideas and beliefs had on a period of history and specifies how events might have been different in the absence of those ideas and beliefs


Era 4 – Expansion and Reform (1801–1861)

Standard 12: Understands the sources and character of cultural, religious, and social reform movements in the antebellum period

Level III (Grades 7–8)

  • Understands the significant religious, philosophical, and social movements of the 19th century and their impacts on American society and social reform
  • Understands how women influenced reform movements and American society during the antebellum period

Level IV (9–12)

  • Understands the social impact of the Second Great Awakening
  • Understands the development of Utopian communities

Era 7 – The Emergence of Modern America (1890–1930)

Standard 20: Understands how Progressives and others addressed problems of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and political corruption

Level III (Grades 6–8)

  • Understands the spread of Progressive ideas and the successes of the Progressive movement
  • Understands the influence of events and individuals on the Progressive movement

Level IV (Grades 9–12)

  • Understands major social and political issues of the Progressive era
  • Understands how the Progressive movement influenced different groups in American society


Standard 4: Understands the concept of a constitution, the various purposes that constitutions serve, and the conditions that contribute to the establishment and maintenance of constitutional government

Level III (Grade 6–8)

  • Knows how constitutions have been used to promote the interests of a particular group, class, religion, or political party

Standard 16: Understands the major responsibilities of the national government for domestic and foreign policy, and understands how government is financed through taxation

Level III (Grades 6–8)

  • Understands why taxation is necessary to pay for government, and knows which provisions of the United States Constitution give the national government the right to collect taxes

Standard 19: Understands what is meant by “the public agenda,” how it is set, and how it is influenced by public opinion and the media

Level III (Grades 6–8)

  • Knows how the public agenda is shaped by political leaders, interest groups, and state and federal courts; understands how individual citizens can help shape the public agenda

Standard 28: Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals

Level III (Grades 6–8)

  • Understands how Americans can use the following means to monitor and influence politics and government at local, state, and national levels: joining political parties, interest groups, and other organizations that attempt to influence public policy and elections; voting; taking part in peaceful demonstrations; circulating and signing petitions

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: Proposed Laws Regulating Personal Behavior

  • In an effort to protect young people from over-stimulating their young bodies, the Food and Drug Administration is considering a ban prohibiting children under 18 from buying energy drinks.
  • Several city council members are concerned about the increased number of bicycle riders on crowded city streets. They are considering enacting an ordinance that would fine any bicycle rider not wearing a helmet on city streets.
  • Concerned that individuals might compromise their health and hoping to avoid black marketeering, the federal government is looking to ban organ donations for profit. No person will be allowed to sell his or her organs to organ banks.
  • People can donate organs only when they are deceased.
  • Several members of Congress want to repeal a law that would require households to use only energy-efficient light bulbs instead of traditional incandescent light bulbs.
  • Several states are considering repealing laws requiring the wearing of seat belts in motor vehicles.
  • A school board is considering a ban on cell phones owing to their suspected link to brain cancer and the disruption they cause in class.