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        The Supreme Court | Liberty of Contract: Lesson Plan

        In this lesson, from series The Supreme Court, students examine how the Supreme Court applied the Fourteenth Amendment to questions involving the liberty of contract and protections for working people.

        Lesson Summary


        In this lesson, students examine how the Court applied the Fourteenth Amendment to questions involving the liberty of contract and protections for working people. As a culminating activity, they make arguments for and against the minimum wage. This is the third of three lessons that comprise a unit on the Fourteenth Amendment. For the other two lessons, see also The Meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment Lesson Plan and Early Civil Rights Cases Facing the Supreme Court Lesson Plan. For extension activities to use with this unit, visit the Supreme Court website.


        • Describe important changes in the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that reflected the changes happening in the United States in the second half of the 19th century
        • Describe and analyze the impact of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court on workers' rights in the beginning of the 20th century

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        Approx. (1) 50 minute session

        Media Resources


        The Fourteenth Amendment and Protection for Workers

        Before The Lesson

        • Prior to this lesson, students should have a basic understanding of the Industrial Revolution and the Depression Era, especially how people differed in their views about protecting workers during those periods of time. This background knowledge is not required, but it is helpful.
        • Prepare the room by hanging two signs at the opposite ends of a long wall in your classroom. The wall should be clear of desks and other obstacles so students will be able to move along the continuum to represent where they "stand" on a particular question. The signs should read "RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE" and "DO NOT RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE."
        • Consider inviting a lawyer, historian, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, or judge to help you teach this lesson.

        The Lesson

        Part I: Introduction

        1. Ask students to describe the time period after Reconstruction, between the 1880s and 1920s, when the Industrial Revolution took root. In particular, ask what they know about how industrialization changed the dynamics of socioeconomic class in the United States. You may choose to use the following information to guide the discussion:

        During this time, the population grew dramatically with a wave of immigration and the economy flourished under capitalism. With industrialization, a small group of people grew very, very wealthy and a nearly permanent "underclass" developed. Leaders of the Progressives attempted to protect working-class people and the underclass, but with limited success.

        2. Distribute the handout The Fourteenth Amendment and Protection for Workers. Ask students to read Part I, the background section about the "Liberty of Contract". (You may want to ask a volunteer to read it aloud as other students read it silently.) Confirm that students understand the main ideas.

        Then ask students to read Part II of the handout and to preview the questions that relate to Worker's Rights QuickTime Video. Show the segment and after students have had time to answer the questions on the handout on their own, discuss their answers as a class.

        A. What did the Court decide in the Lochner case? (Who won?)

        Answer: Lochner won. The Court struck down the New York law as unconstitutional.

        B. What reasons did the Court give for its decision?

        Answer: The Supreme Court said that New York’s law was not a reasonable attempt to act as a police power to protect public health. Instead, the Court said, the law attempted to regulate the employee/employer relationship, which was a violation of the liberties protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. In effect, the Court said that if a person wanted to work more than the maximum number of hours in the law, the government should not interfere with his or her right to enter into a contract to do so.

        C. Do you agree or disagree with the Courts ruling? Explain your reasons.

        Answer: Answers will vary, but should be supported with reasons.

        3. Ask students to work with two others on Part III of the handout, which asks them to analyze the case of West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish. Tell students that they are being asked to make guesses based upon the clues provided. Tell them they have 10 - 15 minutes to complete their work and put the ending time on the board. (Students who are "rusty" on their American history might want to scan through a history textbook for clues, too.)

        4. When time has ended, ask students to share their speculations about the outcomes of the case. They should provide reasons for their guesses.

        5. Show Reflections on Dissent QuickTime Video. When it is finished ask students these questions:

        • How did attitudes about workers' rights change during the depression and the New Deal?
        • What did the Court decide in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish?

        Answer: The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Washington statute to provide minimum wages to women. Regarding the liberty of contract, the Court said that employers and employees were not equally "free" in negotiating contracts because employees, especially women, were more constrained by economic and practical realities. The Court also noted that the Constitution does not mention "freedom of contract" and liberty interests are subject to the restraints of due process. The effect of this was to allow legislatures to address the needs of communities where and when disparities in the market place result in a system of "haves" and "have nots."

        • How did the Courts’ decisions in Lochner and West Coast Hotels differ? How did they fit within the time frame in which they were decided?

        Answer: In the early 1900s, the Court favored letting capitalism run its course, even if it meant that workers might not receive minimum wage or might have to work long hours. This was a time when many people believed in the theories associated with Charles Darwin, that in business and in society, just like in biology, competition for limited resources drives evolution and progress… and that only the "fittest" will survive.

        During the New Deal era, the Court (and the country) shifted to allow legislatures to pass laws intended to protect workers from the forces of a market economy that tend to separate rich and working-class people.

        Part II: Cluminating Activity

        1. Tell students that the controversy over the minimum wage and government interference/assistance with the economy continues today. Ask students the following questions:

        • Please raise your hand if you have a job now or have had one in the past?
        • How was your salary determined?
        • What is the minimum wage?

        Tell students the minimum wage is established by law and means that there is a minimum amount that employers must pay employees on an hourly/monthly basis. The vast majority of workers in the United States are required to be paid a minimum hourly wage according to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Beginning July 24, 2009, federal law requires employers to pay $7.25 per hour for certain types of workers. The law allows employers to pay a "training wage" of $4.25 per hour for certain workers who are less than 20 years old, but this training wage only applied to the first consecutive 90 days of employment -- then the regular minimum wage applied. Workers in some jobs may receive a lower minimum wage of $2.13 per hour if they received tips. However, if a worker's tips did not bring him or her up to the rate of $7.25 per hour, the employer must cover the difference. States have their own minimum wage laws, which may set the wage higher, but not lower than the federal minimum wage. (To find out current wage requirements and details, go to:

        Ask students if they think the minimum wage is a good idea and to explain their reasons.

        2.Point out the continuum that you have hung along one wall of your classroom. Show students that on one end, there is a sign saying "RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE" and on the other end of the room there is a sign that says "DO NOT RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE."

        3. Ask and instruct students:

        • Do you think we should raise the minimum wage in this country? If so, stand along the continuum where the sign says "RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE."
        • If you do not think the minimum wage should be raised, stand under the other sign.
        • If you are not sure, stand in the middle.

        4. Ask one student from under each sign to explain his or her reasons for standing there.

        5. Explain to students that you are going to suggest a number of arguments for and against raising the minimum wage. These arguments will reflect a variety of attitudes and viewpoints. As you read the statements, if students are persuaded to change their "stance" they should move.

        6. Confirm that students understand the directions and then read each of the following statements slowly, allowing time for students to move between each statement, if they choose. Occasionally, as they move, ask them what persuaded them to change their opinions.

        • We need to raise the minimum wage because people earning minimum wage are unable to maintain a decent quality of life.
        • We should not raise the minimum wage because an increase will mean that employers will have to lay off employees, so people will lose jobs and the entire economy will suffer.
        • We should not raise the minimum wage because market forces should determine wages.
        • We should raise the minimum wage because in our free market/capitalism economy, people at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale cannot be helped by "market forces." It is appropriate for the government to step in to protect people and their ability to earn a decent wage.
        • We should not raise the minimum wage because, according to the interpretation of the Constitution by Supreme Court Justices, the Fourteenth Amendment gives us the "liberty of contract" to enter into financial agreements and work contracts that we think are acceptable. The government should not interfere with that liberty.
        • The Fourteenth Amendment and the Constitution do not contain the words "liberty of contract." Those are the words of Justices who merely want to support minimal government interference in the economy.
        • Some people believe that changes in the minimum wage laws will affect teens more negatively than other segments of the population.

        Ask students which arguments they found most persuasive and why.

        Check For Understanding

        Conclude the lesson by asking students the following question:

        • Which social and economic conditions coincided with an evolutionin the Court's thinking about the Fourteenth Amendment and itsrelationship to the rights of workers and employers?


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