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Balancing individual freedom with public order and safety: lesson overview

LOR‑2 (EU)
LOR‑2.D (LO)
LOR‑2.D.1 (EK)
LOR‑2.D.2 (EK)
A high-level overview of how the Supreme Court has balanced claims of individual liberty against laws promoting public order and safety.  
When deciding cases, the Supreme Court attempts to promote public safety while also protecting individual rights. This proves to be harder in some cases than others. Difficult cases involve issues such as the death penalty, gun control legislation, and government collection of digital metadata.
At times, the Court has supported the extension of individual rights, while at other times, it has allowed for limits on individual rights for the sake of promoting public safety.

Key terms

Second AmendmentProtects the right to bear arms (guns).
Fourth AmendmentProtects individuals’ homes, persons, and belongings from unreasonable search and seizure.
Eighth AmendmentProtects individuals from the government enforcing excessive bails or fines, or from inflicting cruel and unusual punishment.
rule of lawThe principle that government is based on a body of law applied equally and fairly to every citizen, not on the whims of those in charge, and that no one is above the law—including the government.

Key takeaways

The Court’s interpretation of the Eighth Amendment: In recent years, the Supreme Court has seen an increase in cases involving the death penalty, hinging on the question of whether certain uses of capital punishment violate the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
The Court’s interpretation of cruel and unusual punishment has changed over time. In some recent cases, it has prevented states from issuing the death penalty to defendants who are minors or defendants who are legally judged to be mentally incompetent.
Balancing public safety and the right to bear arms: The debate over gun control and gun ownership is a topic of much controversy in the United States today. Some argue that the government should do more to protect public safety and prevent gun violence by passing legislation limiting access to certain weapons and issuing mandatory wait periods. Others argue that the government should not be allowed to infringe on a person’s right to own a gun.
Although state and local governments have sought to increase gun control legislation in order to protect public safety, the Supreme Court has recently ruled in support of the Second Amendment protection of an individual’s right to own guns, striking down gun control legislation in D.C. v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010).
Balancing public safety and individual protections from unreasonable search and seizure: Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the National Security Agency (NSA), along with the FBI and CIA, have increased their efforts to prevent terrorist attacks on US soil. The NSA is responsible for conducting surveillance to protect national security. To do so, they created a database of digital metadata from major phone companies like AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth.
This practice came to light in 2013 when former CIA employee Edward Snowden released classified information to the world showing that the NSA had been monitoring the phone calls of leaders of allied nations. Snowden’s intelligence sparked a public debate about whether or not this collection of data was an example of unreasonable search and seizure.
NSA critics contend that the agency violated the Fourth Amendment because it neither had the appropriate warrants to collect this data, nor had it disclosed the fact it was doing so. The NSA’s defenders argue that the agency was doing what was necessary to protect public safety, and that the likely delays associated with getting a court warrant each time the government wants to monitor digital metadata could impede its ability to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Review questions

How has the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment caused tension between the values of individual liberty and rule of law?
Do you think the government’s collection of digital metadata promotes public safety or interferes with individual rights?
How might one use the Eighth Amendment to argue against the use of the death penalty?

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user bandalif
    Why does public safety more important than civil liberties?
    (9 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user JD
      It may be within your liberty to carry a knife openly in public, but it's not safe for the people around you. A person can collect anything they want but once their house is a health hazard it's not good for public safety.
      (9 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Dominick Kurlonko
    How come when someone does get the death penalty, tax payers have to pay for years of them sitting in prison?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user SloanP
    why is public safety put ahead than civil liberties
    (2 votes)
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  • starky sapling style avatar for user nailahbell
    why is civil liberties important to the public?
    (0 votes)
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    • duskpin tree style avatar for user DorkKnight
      Firstly, the purpose of government is to preserve natural rights. The government does that by A: respecting natural rights in general and B: by taking away some rights (such as the right to harm others) to ensure maximum net rights. This is the social contract.

      This concept of natural rights is somewhat different from civil liberties and civil rights, but there is major overlap. Civil liberties are freedoms retained by the people, so natural rights, such as the right to free speech, not delegated to the government are civil liberties.

      Civil liberties (and civil rights too) are important to the public because they are a subset of natural rights, and natural rights are the ultimate good.
      (2 votes)