Survey of Civic Literacy reveals knowledge gaps

The American Bar Association recently released the results of its first ABA Survey of Civic Literacy, which showed broad support for the First Amendment but exposed holes in the public’s knowledge of U.S. government, history and basic rights.

The survey assessed the American public’s knowledge of basic civic information, concepts and constitutional protections.

The nationally representative poll also included questions about support for the First Amendment and the public’s understanding of how First Amendment protections apply in everyday situations.

It was undertaken in conjunction with this year’s national Law Day theme, “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society.”

The findings found that a majority knows some fundamental facts about the structure of government and the U.S. Constitution.

Ninety-five percent recognize that the Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation and 93 percent can identify the two chambers of Congress.

But the survey also shows gaps in knowledge of American government — less than half of the U.S. public knows that John Roberts is chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court while almost one-quarter think it is Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 16 percent believe it is Clarence Thomas.

Many in the public are confused over who has certain legal rights and responsibilities in the U.S. democracy.

Thirty percent incorrectly believe that non-citizens do not have the right of freedom of speech, while more than 1 in 5 surveyed believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for paying taxes and more than 10 percent believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for obeying the law.

Public support for rights guaranteed by the First Amendment was strong.

Eighty-eight percent say that government does not have the right to review what journalists write before it is published, 81 percent agree that people should be able to publicly criticize the U.S. president or any other government leader and 80 percent believe that individuals and organizations should have the right to request government records or information.

But nearly one in five incorrectly thinks that freedom of the press is not protected by the First Amendment and nearly 20 percent incorrectly believe the right of people to peaceably assemble does not fall under the First Amendment.

More than half mistakenly think the First Amendment does not permit burning the American flag in political protest under the First Amendment.

ABA President Bob Carlson said, “Democracy is not a spectator sport, but to participate, you need to know the rules,” ABA President Bob Carlson said. “That’s too important to leave to chance.”

The ABA conducted the survey to determine how well the American public understands the law, the Constitution and their rights and responsibilities, Carlson said.

“The results clearly show that we have more work to do,” he said. “American democracy does not function without a fully informed citizenry. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said,
‘The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.’”