The Camden 28

PBS Premiere: Sept. 11, 2007Check the broadcast schedule »

Lesson Plan: Civil Disobedience: Right or Wrong?

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This lesson plan is designed to be used in conjunction with the film The Camden 28, which chronicles the actions of a group of anti-Vietnam War activists known as the Camden 28. In 1971, the group raided a draft board office in protest and were subsequently arrested by the FBI and tried in court. The film explains why they took such action and shows the outcome of their criminal trial.

NOTE: This film contains several graphic scenes from the war in Vietnam. Please preview before showing the entire film in a classroom setting.

This lesson asks students to consider whether acts of civil disobedience, such as those committed by the Camden 28, are appropriate means of bringing about positive change.

POV documentaries can be recorded off-the-air and used for educational purposes for up to one year from the initial broadcast. In addition, POV offers a lending library of DVDs that you can borrow anytime during the school year -- FOR FREE! Please visit our Film Library to find other films suitable for classroom use or to make this film a part of your school's permanent collection.


By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Discuss acts of civil disobedience and their outcomes in the history of the United States.
  • Use viewing skills and note-taking strategies to understand and interpret video clips.
  • Write essays that take a position on the question "When a law perpetuates injustice, is it necessary to break that law in order to change it?"


SUBJECT AREAS: U.S. History, Civics, English


  • Copy of the film The Camden 28 (see "Overview" for taping rights information)
  • Method (varies by school) of showing online video clips to the class
  • Handout: Viewing Guide (PDF file)

ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED: One 50-minute class period


Clip 1: The Trial of the Camden 28 (Length: 27:44)
The clip begins at 48:29 with the narration "The actual trial of the Camden 28 ..." and ends at 76:13 when the Camden 28 are found not guilty and sing "Amazing Grace." Video not online. Please use DVD copy to show clip.


In the United States, the Selective Service System requires all men between the ages of 18 and 26 to register for the draft. The draft isn't currently active, but during the Vietnam War, it conscripted more than 1.8 million Americans into military service.

In 1971, 28 antiwar activists in Camden, New Jersey -- later known as the Camden 28 -- were arrested for their involvement in breaking into the Camden draft board and destroying and trying to remove draft records. The Camden 28 targeted the draft because they believed it was immoral to compel citizens to kill. They faced up to 47 years in federal prison as a result of their actions.

During their arrest, participants realized that their good friend Robert Hardy, who had been instrumental in planning the break-in, was actually an FBI informant who had betrayed the group and helped federal agents catch them in the act. Hardy would later say that he helped the FBI only because he felt bound to uphold the law and was assured in his meetings with the FBI that the Camden 28 wouldn't go to jail for their actions. When Hardy realized that the government was determined to prosecute the Camden 28, he helped the defense by providing an affidavit and testifying that the FBI had inadvertently helped carry out the raid at the draft board by enlisting him as an agent provocateur.

During their trial, the Camden 28 admitted to breaking laws, but then asked the jury to acquit them using nullification of the laws against breaking and entering on the grounds that citizens had a right to stop an "illegal and immoral" war. They also claimed that the raid would not have taken place without the help of an admitted FBI double agent. The Camden 28 were found not guilty on all charges, representing the first legal victory for the antiwar movement in five years of such draft board actions and prosecutions. The jury's verdict moved Supreme Court Justice William Brennan to call the proceeding "one of the great trials of the 20th century."

For more historical context on the Camden 28's draft board raid, watch the extra footage clips "Harrisburg 7 and the Media Raid" and "Protesting Against the Draft."


  1. Give students two to three minutes to write a response to this question: Is it ever okay to break the law? Take a few minutes to discuss student answers.
  2. Talk to students about incidents in world history when people have chosen to break what they felt were unjust laws with the goal of bringing about positive change. Such actions are called acts of "civil disobedience." Ask students to think specifically about their previous studies of U.S. history and name examples of civil disobedience with which they are familiar. Students may bring up the Boston Tea Party, those who defied the Fugitive Slave Acts and freed slaves before the Civil War, Rosa Parks's refusal to move to the back of the bus, and so on. In each instance, ask: Was the person or group who broke the law justified in taking such actions? Why or why not? Do members of a democracy have a responsibility for protesting laws they consider unjust? Could the desired outcomes have been achieved without breaking the law?
  3. Tell the class about the Camden 28, drawing from information in the "Background" section of this lesson. (You may want to play the extra footage clip "Parade of Arrests" on an overhead projector in the background while detailing what led up to the Camden 28's arrests.) Explain that as a result of their actions, the Camden 28 risked going to jail for 47 years. Ask students if there is a cause for which they would be willing to make a similar sacrifice. Then play the section of The Camden 28 that describes the trial proceedings for these activists. The clip begins at 48:29 with the narration "The actual trial of the Camden 28 ..." and ends at 76:13 when the Camden 28 are found not guilty and sing "Amazing Grace." Use the provided Viewing Guide to focus student attention.
  4. Ask students if they think the Camden 28 could have brought about their desired goals without breaking the law. How effective is civil disobedience in bringing about positive change? Should there be limits on how people can protest? Why or why not?
  5. For homework, ask students to write an essay that takes a position on the question "When a law perpetuates injustice, is it necessary to break that law in order to change it?" In their essays, students should draw on the case of the Camden 28 and class discussions to support their points.


Students can be assessed on:

  • Participation in class discussion
  • Completing and submitting the Viewing Guide
  • The content, readability and mechanics of their essay


  • Watch the film The Camden 28 in its entirety. (See the "Overview" section of this lesson for an important content flag.) Then do one or more of the following activities:
    • Conduct research and write essays that compare and contrast the strategies of antiwar activists during the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq. Analyze how the presence or absence of the draft may influence protest activities.
    • Produce a mock talk show where student "guests" pretend to be specific individuals and representatives of groups featured in the film. Take the role of host and ask questions that require your guests to defend their activities based on what they learned from the film.
    • Discuss the plea deal offered to the Camden 28 before the trial began. What is the purpose of plea bargaining? Why did the Camden 28 decide to turn down the government's plea offer? What would students have done in the same situation?
  • Analyze the legal defense of the Camden 28. Begin by examining the terms "jury nullification" and "entrapment." Then watch the extra footage clip "Amiscus Brief," which describes the problem the defense had in using an "entrapment" or "overreaching government activity" argument and the legal moves they made to work through this obstacle. And finally, watch the extra footage clip "The Legal Case of John Barry," which outlines the main arguments of the prosecution. If students had been members of the jury for this trial, what verdict would they have made and why?
  • Explore other POV films that address violence, the role of government, Vietnam and/or protest: Regret to Inform, A Panther in Africa, Revolution '67, The Flute Player" and No More Tears Sister.
  • Create a timeline that illustrates when U.S. foreign policy has been more interventionist vs. more isolationist in nature. Discuss what political, cultural, historical, economic and geographic factors may have influenced U.S. foreign policy strategies over time.
  • Read and discuss Henry David Thoreau's essay "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience." Have students research recent examples of civil disobedience, then have them talk about what they would be willing to do for a cause that is important to them.


Civil Disobedience

The "Dictionary of the History of Ideas" from the University of Virginia provides an in-depth history and discussion of civil disobedience.

Howard Zinn on Civil Disobedience(PDF)
Read the transcript of historian Howard Zinn's testimony at the trial of the Camden 28 in early 1973. In this section, Zinn explains the history of civil disobedience in America.

PBS: "Vietnam: A Television History"

The website for the PBS series "Vietnam: A Television History" is a good starting place for general information about the war in Vietnam.


These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge," a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning).


Standard 1: Understands ideas about civic life, politics and government.

Standard 3: Understands the sources, purposes and functions of law and the importance of the rule of law for the protection of individual rights and the common good.

Standard 13: Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity.

Standard 14: Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life.

Standard 18: Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights.

Standard 28: Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals.

Language Arts

Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes.

Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

U.S. History

Standard 31: Understands economic, social and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.


Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in broadcast journalism, secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Background Sources

Selective Service System induction statistics: