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Princeton’s Robert George leads free online course in civil liberties

Brendan-Bush/Roanoke CC

John Burger - published on 01/30/19

What happens when concepts collide on rights?

What are “civil liberties” and “civil rights?” What happens when some members of society have different ideas about what constitutes those liberties and rights? How can conflicts over such rights be best resolved?

Princeton Professor Robert P. George explores the moral basis of controversial claims of civil rights and liberties in a free online course, “Civil Liberties.” Considering the evidence and reasons presented by notable thinkers and in groundbreaking Supreme Court opinions, George aims to help students think through a wide variety of issues by “carefully, dispassionately, and above all critically considering the evidence, reasons, and arguments presented by the best thinkers and writers on the competing sides,” according to a course introduction.

The course promises that the student will “gain a deeper appreciation of the complexity of the issues and a richer sense of how it is that reasonable people of goodwill in a free society such as ours can disagree about fundamental matters of justice and rights and yet sustain a peaceful, democratic order.”

“It would be one thing if the debate over civil liberties in a country, say our country, were a debate over how it’s best to protect civil liberties or basic rights,” George says in the course, filmed in a Princeton lecture hall. “How much authority to protect civil liberties should the courts have? How much authority rests with the legislatures? How much authority is at the federal level or national level? How much authority is at the state level?

“That would be one thing,” he continues. “But it’s especially vexing for the discussion today because our debates are not simply about how best to protect civil rights and liberties. It’s about what civil rights and liberties people have. And we find ourselves in conflict over what in fact is a right being violated when it comes to particular issues.”

A prime example, he says, is the issue of abortion. “Many critics argue that Roe was wrong procedurally because the Supreme Court had no authority under the Constitution to intervene in the abortion question, but those who argue substantively against the decision on pro-life grounds maintain that the decision is an actual violation of rights, that the right in question there is the right of the child in the womb, the right of the unborn child not to be the victim of lethal violence.”

George, who has taught the Civil Liberties course at Princeton for many years, begins with an overview of how the Founding Fathers developed the U.S. Constitution and why the idea of a “republic” was so important to people like Abraham Lincoln that he was willing to see hundreds of thousands of Americans die on the battlefield in order to preserve it.

He delves into a number of special topics, including the problem of moral pluralism, the free exercise of religion, pornography, embryonic research, assisted suicide and capital punishment.

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