List of Issues
Affirmative Action Are racial preference systems a reasonable way to value diversity or a veiled attempt at reverse discrimination? Although affirmative action programs remain legal, a divided court and a divided nation keep the debate alive.

Civil Liberties in War What personal freedoms are Americans willing to sacrifice in the name of national security?

Death Penalty Is the death penalty an effective deterrent to crime or a violation of the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment?

Free Speech The First Amendment guarantees free speech to all Americans. But in 1999, a New York Appeals Court upheld a City of New York rule that required members of the Ku Klux Klan to remove any head-coverings or masks when marching. Does the unmasking of the KKK interfere with their First Amendment freedoms? Can this precedent force other protesters to reveal their identities when protesting governmental action?

Gun Control After the Columbine school massacre, many legislators called for renewed efforts to limit the sale of handguns, particularly to minors. Cities such as Chicago and New Orleans went so far as to bring lawsuits aimed at recouping the costs of gun violence from the gun industry. The lawsuits question whether gun manufacturers and dealers, like the tobacco industry, can be held accountable for the criminal use of their products. Does the Second Amendment prohibit state regulation and control of firearms?

Juvenile Justice Young people are increasingly being tried as adults when they commit serious crimes and are serving hard time in adult prisons. Will treating children as adults deter crime and ensure safety? Or is locking children up for life cruel and unusual punishment? Supporters argue that youths who commit adult crimes must be treated as such. Critics of the law say that it jails a population that has the greatest capacity for rehabilitation and unfairly targets inner city minorities.

Web Censorship Freedom of speech has entered a new battleground: cyberspace. The very qualities that make the Internet an ideal communication tool also facilitate the exposure of children to potentially harmful material. Should access to "adult" material, such as pornography, be filtered or otherwise banned to prevent children from accessing it at schools, libraries and other public places, or is it protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech? The U.S. Supreme Court recently allowed filters to be placed on library computers, but left the door open to future legal challenges.

Zero Tolerance When Congress passed the Gun Free Schools Act in the early 1990s, they sought to crack down on kids with guns. In practice, the law provided schools with a tool to handle discipline problems, vandalism, assaults, drugs, sexual harassment, even cheating. School boards call it zero tolerance. Critics call it a deeply flawed policy. Administrators are enforcing zero tolerance policies that often result in school suspensions or expulsions for minor infractions. Do these policies unjustly punish first time offenders, or is that simply the price we must pay for safe schools?

The Drug War After more than thirty years and billions of dollars spent on fighting the war on drugs, the typical high school student says it is easier to buy pot than alcohol. From the crack epidemic in the 1980's to the latest designer drugs like ecstasy, the drug war has been fueled by concerns about the impact that these substances have on society. Drug warriors continue to call for harsher punishments and larger police forces. But, after all this time and money, the public increasingly doubts if the war can ever be won. Are drugs a problem of public safety or public health? Is there another way?

Energy and the Environment How can we become more energy efficient, protect the environment and combat climate change? For decades, alarms have been raised about U.S. dependence on foreign oil. And more recently, the emissions from carbon fuels have increased concerns about global warming. But efforts to bolster alternative or renewable energy sources have made scant progress. And the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico highlighted the failure of government regulators and industry to enforce safety measures, leading to an environmental disaster. What sorts of energy policies best serve the interests of Americans?

Religion in Schools From opening prayers at football games to lessons about creationism taught in the classroom, the presence of religion in public schools tests the limits of free expression and tolerance. Some feel that denying religious groups access to school facilities is unfair discrimination. Others believe that religion belongs only in private homes and places of worship. What role, if any, should religion play in the public education system?

Race and Education While many hail the profound importance of the desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, others openly question if the reality lives up to the promise. Busing orders have ended, integration plans put aside and most schools across the nation remain largely segregated by race. In an ironic shift, some racial justice activists are now advocating for the development of specially designated schools for African American boys and African American girls. What are the costs of continued segregation and where do we take the legacy left to us by the justices a half a century ago?

Women's Rights From the voting booth to the office cubicle; the ball field to the battlefield, the road to women’s equality has been a long and difficult one. And unfinished business remains.

Voting Rights It took 81 years for African Americans to gain a constitutional right to vote, 132 years for women and 183 years for those 18 to 20 years old.

United Nations Peacekeeping It is not a nation. It has no standing army. And, yet, the United Nations has more experience with war and peace than any nation on the planet.

Education Policy Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer providing opportunities for all regardless of class or race. However, studies continue to document that young people of color or from low-income families have fewer opportunities for a quality education and that the gap is growing at an alarming rate.

First Amendment Perhaps the most important rights central to a democracy are enumerated in the First Amendment: the right to free speech and expression, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and the rights to assemble and to petition the government.

Freedom from Discrimination Since its beginnings, America has struggled with the principle of equality for all people.

Health Care President Franklin Roosevelt, in his 1944 State of the Union address, spoke eloquently of the need for an “Economic Bill of Rights,” including the “right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health” as one of the keys to ensuring Americans’ security and economic independence. But Roosevelt’s idea to overhaul the nation’s health care system went nowhere, as did the efforts of Presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton.

Immigration America is a nation of immigrants. As they arrived in waves to the new country, they shaped its identity, built its economy and embodied its ideals of freedom.

Legal Rights The Fifth Amendment provides that no person shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The due process clause, which places substantive restrictions on the unreasonable use of government power, is one of the oldest and best guarantees of liberty.

Rights of Juvenile Defendants Young people are increasingly being tried as adults when they commit serious crimes and are given severe sentences. Does treating young people as adults deter crime and ensure safety? Or is it cruel and unusual punishment to lock up a teenager for life?

Second Amendment “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The meaning of the Second Amendment has long been debated.

Social Security The crisis of Social Security has come to the forefront of public debate, but few elected officials dare touch the controversial topic as efforts to overhaul the massive, popular entitlement plan have failed repeatedly.

Unreasonable Search and Seizure Technological capabilities in the 21st century raise issues of privacy that the framers could not have imagined when they drafted the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

State and Local Government This issue pages discusses the 10th Amendment, which is about states' rights, and state and local governments.
Death Penalty
Is the death penalty an effective deterrent to crime or a violation of the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment? The Supreme Court has issued many rulings over the years as it struggles to determine when a death sentence is constitutional. Who can be executed, and for which crimes? What method of execution is not cruel and unusual punishment? In recent years, DNA testing has helped prove the innocence of death row inmates. Is our justice system foolproof enough to prevent wrongful executions?




  • 1608
    First Execution Carried Out In Colonies

  • 1632
    First Woman Executed In Colonies

  • 1767
    Essay Against Death Penalty Gets Widespread Attention

  • 1790
    Anti-Death Penalty Movement Takes Shape

  • 1791
    Eighth Amendment Passed

  • 1878
    Execution By Public Shooting Not 'Cruel And Unusual' Punishment

  • 1888
    Electric Chair Is Introduced

  • 1890
    Execution By Electrocution Ruled Constitutional

  • 1900
    Some States Abolish Death Penalty

  • 1920
    Renewed Public Support For Death Penalty

  • 1924
    Use Of Cyanide Gas Introduced In Executions

  • 1947
    Second Electrocution Attempt After First One Fails Is Not 'Cruel and Unusual'

  • 1950
    Public Opinion On Death Penalty Changes Again

  • 1958
    Court Tries To Define What 'Cruel And Unusual' Means

  • 1972
    Most Death Penalty Statutes Declared Unconstitutional

  • 1976
    Mandatory Death Sentences Are Struck Down
    Court Defines When Death Penalty Is Constitutional

  • 1977
    Death Penalty Ruled Unconstitutional For Certain Crimes
    Lethal Injection Introduced As Execution Method

  • 1986
    Execution Of Insane Inmates Banned

  • 1988
    Execution Of Juveniles Found Unconstitutional

  • 1989
    Execution Of Mentally Retarded Inmates Is Upheld

  • 1993
    Evidence Of Innocence Not Enough to Invalidate Death Sentence

  • 1997
    Electric Chair Challenged Again In Florida
    Electric Chair Malfunctions In Florida

  • 2000
    Ill. Governor Declares Moratorium On Executions
    Report Shows Racial And Geographic Disparities In Executions

  • 2002
    Court Reverses Itself On Executing Mentally Retarded Inmates

  • 2003
    New Standards For Defense Counsel's Obligations In Capital Cases

  • 2008
    Court Upholds Lethal Injection Method In Ky.
    Court Rejects Death Penalty For Child Rape

  • 2011
    Illinois Abolishes Death Penalty
    
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