Safety or Civil Liberty? The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti

Safety or Civil Liberty? The Trial of Sacco and Vanzetti
Florence Harding: Law, Politics and Govt

Skill: Middle School
Time Required: Three to four class periods


From the Russian revolution in 1917 until about 1920, the United States was plagued by what turned out to be an irrational fear of communism, socialism, or anything that was thought to be a threat to the "American way of life."  In this period, as in a later period in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the term for this fear was "the Red scare." As has been the case since September 11, 2001, a major perceived threat to the United States is often accompanied by efforts to restrain civil liberties, to spy on citizens, and to arrest, try, and convict people for crimes whether or not there is real evidence to support the conviction.  Such was the case of two professed anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Barfolomeo Vanzetti, who were tried for murder during the Harding  administration, and eventually executed. Many people believe these men were innocent of the crimes of which they were accused.  We leave it to you to decide.  


Students will investigate the Sacco—Vanzetti trial and develop a basic understanding of the issues involved.  Students will write an essay taking a stance on the Sacco—Vanzetti trial: was the trial fair? were the two men falsely accused?  

Materials Required:

Research materials (books, articles, magazines, World Wide Web); Internet access (website suggestions listed in resources); computer(s) (to allow student to research topic further); word processor (or paper and writing utensil); printer (for resources and final papers).


1.  To introduce this lesson, students should discuss today's arguments about the need to balance safety with civil liberties.  How does fear of the unknown attacker cause us to be willing to give up the freedom that American citizens have always prized?

2. Using the websites listed below, students will research the Sacco—Vanzetti trial, looking at all aspects of the trial, including the biographies of the two men, excerpts of the trial transcript, pictures, summary of evidence, sentencing, etc. 

3. After careful consideration, students are encouraged to set forth their opinions (in a short essay) on:

  • the degree to which the government honored civil liberties
  • the thoughts of the two men (as found in their letters)
  • whether or not the two men were actually guilty

5.  Engage the whole class in a discussion of how to balance a sense of safety with an allegiance to the notion of civil liberty.

Extending the Lesson:

Have students set up and participate in a mock re-trail of the case.  Students will serve in different positions within the court (bailiff, judge, attorneys, defendant, plaintiff, witnesses, jury, etc.).

Sources & Resources:



This lesson was developed by Marian Maxfield, Kent State University.