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What Is a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

45 min


  • Students will understand the principle of due process, which holds that the government must interact with all citizens according to the tenets of the law; applying these rules equally among all citizens.
  • Students will understand ways the Supreme Court has interpreted the Fourth Amendment.
  • Students will evaluate whether the Fourth Amendment is effectively protecting citizens from unreasonable search and seizure.

Day I

  1. Distribute Handout B: Attitude Inventory and do a think-pair-share. If students wish to change their answers after discussing with their partner, they should feel free to do so.
  2. Reconvene the class and ask for a few volunteers to share their responses. Which items led to the most discussion? Did anyone change their mind? Why?
  3. Ask students how they responded to the questions that asked about their understanding of concepts (numbers 1-2). What information do students need to increase their understandings? Make a list on the board and refer to it through the activities.

Day I

Activity I – 10 minutes

  1. Project and/or distribute Handout C: Interpreting the Fourth Amendment. Read the text of the Fourth Amendment aloud to the class.
  2. Ask students to contribute their answers, and type or write their contributions on the projected handout. See the Answer Key for suggested responses.

Activity II – 20 minutes

  1. Put students in groups of 2-4, and distribute Handout D: Should You Expect Privacy?
  2. Give students 10 minutes to complete the chart. After deciding on each scenario, they should include a one-sentence justification.
  3. Bring the class together and ask for student responses to the first scenario.
  4. When student discussion of each scenario is complete, share the information from the Answer Key.

Day I

Wrap-Up – 5 minutes
Conduct a brief discussion on the following questions.

  1. Is it always clear when someone has a “reasonable expectation of privacy”?
  2. Based on the kinds of things the Supreme Court has said the Fourth Amendment allows government to do, is that amendment effectively protecting citizens from unreasonable search and seizure?
  3. Why is it important that Americans have an ongoing conversation about what is private and what government can and cannot do to its citizens?

  1. Have students pretend they are a member of Congress who wishes to propose a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution that “updates” the Fourth Amendment and addresses new issues of personal privacy. In ONE sentence—just as the Fourth Amendment is one sentence—have them write a new amendment that includes Fourth Amendment-style protections for new technologies and modern life. In 2-3 paragraphs, have students defend and justify what they included in their new, proposed Amendment.
    1. Do they believe their proposed amendment answers ALL of the potential challenges to both privacy and search/seizure in modern life and going forward? Is it even possible?
    2. What does this assignment reveal about the durability of the Fourth Amendment?
  2. Explain to students that customs agents at the national border may search individuals or their property without a warrant. The same is true at an airport when someone wants to board a flight. (Airports have been the subject of controversy with the installation of backscatter radiation full-body scanners and the carrying out of full-body pat-downs). Write a 2-3 paragraph response to the following questions:
    1. How have fears of terrorism affected the way people view these practices?
    2. What other criminal procedures, if any, would it be acceptable to relax in light of the war on terror?
  3. Invite a school official to your class to speak to students and ask the following questions. Students should then write a 2-3 paragraph summary of the official’s answers, closing with a statement of student opinion about the state of the Fourth Amendment in your school:
    1. What situations have you encountered in which you’ve conducted a search?
    2. How do you make a decision about conducting a search? What district policies, state laws, or Supreme Court ruling guide your decision to conduct a search?
    3. Do you believe the application of the Fourth Amendment in schools both upholds student rights and the need to preserve school safety and learning? Why or why not?

Student Handouts

Next Lesson

How Does the Constitution Protect Liberty?