Many Americans Know Little About Constitutional Rights

(Editor’s note: All too often, people in the liberal and progressive world scorn those Americans who know little about their Constitutional rights or the rights of others. But actually it is more appropriate to respond with outrage at an educational system that has failed to inform them of these rights and how they work. Similarly, many Americans really know little about the actual history and workings of racism or anti-Semitism in this society. But if you have not been exposed to it directly, have never seen the t.v. series “Roots” or been given a mandatory course on racism,  and been taught in your church or school about the way Christianity popularized anti-Semitism for 1700 years, and your family didn’t really understand how these hateful ideas are infused in popular culture, how would you know how pernicious they are? Rather than look down on those who don’t know, the society should be asking “How do we now engage in a massive educational venture for adults as well as for high school students to help them understand about racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and, very important, classism and age-ism?” –Rabbi Michael Lerner  rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com)

Americans Are Poorly Informed About Basic Constitutional Provisions

Many Americans are poorly informed about basic constitutional provisions, according to a new national survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey finds that:

  • More than half of Americans (53 percent) incorrectly think it is accurate to say that immigrants who are here illegally do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution;
  • More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment;
  • Only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can name all three branches of government.

“Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania. “These results emphasize the need for high-quality civics education in the schools and for press reporting that underscores the existence of constitutional protections.”

Illegal immigration and constitutional rights

The APPC survey, conducted Aug. 9-13among 1,013 adults in the United States, finds that 53 percent think that people who are here illegally do not have any rights under the Constitution. That incorrect belief is especially strong among self-identified political conservatives – 67 percent think it is accurate, compared with 48 percent of moderates and 46 percent of liberals.

In fact, immigrants who are in the United States illegally share some constitutional protections with U.S. citizens. More than a century ago, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), a case involving a Chinese immigrant, the Supreme Court ruled that non-citizens were entitled to due process rights under the 14thAmendment’s equal protection clause. Other cases have expanded upon those rights.* (For more on Yick Wo, see this video on Annenberg Classroom’s website.)

Most respondents, though not all, know that under the Constitution, U.S. citizens who are atheists or Muslim have the same rights as all other citizens. Seventy-nine percent of respondents know it is accurate to say that U.S. citizens who are atheists have the same rights as other citizens, and 76 percent know it is accurate to say that citizens who are Muslim have the same rights as other citizens.

What does the First Amendment say?

Nearly half of those surveyed (48 percent) say that freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But, unprompted, 37 percent could not name any First Amendment rights. And far fewer people could name the other First Amendment rights: 15 percent of respondents say freedom of religion; 14 percent say freedom of the press; 10 percent say the right of assembly; and only 3 percent say the right to petition the government.

The First Amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Contrary to the First Amendment, 39 percent of Americans support allowing Congress to stop the news media from reporting on any issue of national security without government approval. That was essentially unchanged from last year. But the survey, which followed a year of attacks on the news media, found less opposition to prior restraint (49 percent) than in 2016 (55 percent).

Many don’t know the branches of government

Only 26 percent of respondents can name the three branches of government (executive, judicial, and legislative), the same result as last year. In the presence of controls, people who identified themselves as conservatives were significantly more likely to name all three branches correctly than liberals and moderates. The 26 percent total was down significantly from APPC’s first survey on this question, in 2011, when 38 percent could name all three.

In the current survey, 33 percent could not name any of the three branches, the same as in 2011.

The phone survey, conducted for APPC by the research firm SSRS, has a margin of error of ±3.7 percent. For more on the methodology and questions click here.

Constitution Day and the Civics Renewal Network

APPC’s Annenberg Classroom, presented by the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics, has created a series of free, award-winning videos for educators and the public, including Yick Wo and the Equal Protection ClauseThe Role of the Courts, and Freedom of the Press: New York Times v. United States.

Annenberg Classroom has joined with 30 other nonpartisan organizations to create the Civics Renewal Network, which offers free, high-quality educational materials online. Among CRN’s partners are the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the National Constitution Center, the U.S. Courts, the NEH’s EDSITEment Project and iCivics.

Constitution Day (Sept. 17) will be celebrated Monday, Sept. 18. To mark it, the U.S. Courts are holding naturalization ceremonies nationwide and educators will lead students in the “Preamble Challenge,” celebrating the Preamble to the Constitution.

Updated 9/15/17: An earlier version of this release incorrectly referred to the immigrant Yick Wo as undocumented.

* In Plyler v. Doe (1982), for example, the Supreme Court ruled that a Texas law violated the equal protection clause by denying a public school education to undocumented children. The Court held: “The illegal aliens who are plaintiffs in these cases challenging the statute may claim the benefit of the Equal Protection Clause, which provides that no State shall ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ Whatever his status under the immigration laws, an alien is a ‘person’ in any ordinary sense of that term.” The majority also wrote: “In addition to the pivotal role of education in sustaining our political and cultural heritage, denial of education to some isolated group of children poses an affront to one of the goals of the Equal Protection Clause: the abolition of governmental barriers presenting unreasonable obstacles to advancement on the basis of individual merit.”

(A final note from Rabbi Lerner: Looking to the Supreme Court and its decisions may not always be the smartest strategy. The Supreme Court is the source of decisions to allow the wealthy to spend as much money as they want in elections, allegedly because spending money is a form of speech and hence cannot be restricted (the infamous Citizen’s United decision). Similarly, the courts have ruled that corporations are ‘persons’ and hence have the same rights as individuals, making it hard to restrict some of their worst behaviors. The Court has at times moved very far toward protecting rights, and at other times very far away from doing so–and as the Court now has a very conservative majority, don’t be surprised if it undermines some of its own previous decisions when it was filled with more caring and compassionate justices.)

 
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