Ignorance may well have been bliss to 18th-century English poet Thomas Gray, but in 2019, widespread ignorance of our core freedoms and how our government functions is just plain dangerous.
A just-released Survey of Civic Literacy, conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) and released May 1 to mark national Law Day, finds many of us do not know much about either subject.
The survey’s theme and the ABA’s Law Day focus was on “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society.” The survey findings are generally in line with the Freedom Forum Institute’s annual State of the First Amendment survey, conducted since 1997: Many — sometimes a majority — of us get our rights “wrong.” History tells us that if we are not aware of our freedoms, it is that much easier to lose them.
There is some good news in the results, particularly in strong support for free speech: More than eight of 10 respondents of the 1,000-person sampling said we should be able to publicly criticize a president or any other government leader and that we should have the right to ask for government records and information. Three of four agree the government should not be able to restrain the press in reporting on political protest.
Then there are these findings:
- 18 percent don’t know freedom of the press or the freedom of assembly are elements of the First Amendment;
- 30 percent of respondents believe freedom of speech applies only to U.S. citizens rather than correctly to all in this nation;
- 23 percent said Ruth Bader Ginsburg is chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; just 49 percent correctly said it’s John Roberts;
- 18 percent thought the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution are called the Declaration of Independence; 75 percent correctly identified them as the Bill of Rights.
It is reassuring that 88 percent of respondents know that the government does not have the “right to review what journalists write before it is published,” but that means more than 10 percent wrongly believe government does have a right to censor.
Again, it is good that a strong majority sees no problem in openly criticizing public officials. But nearly 20 percent are opposed or unsure whether or not we should have that right, which is more than unsettling — it’s sizeable doubt about a core principle of what it means to be an American.
Sometimes the ignorance shown in the survey concerns current law: 54 percent said there is no free speech right under the First Amendment to burn a U.S. flag in political protest. In fact, in a 1989 decision, Texas v. Johnson, the U.S. Supreme Court said just the opposite, setting up flag burning as a demonstration to the world of our commitment to freedom of expression.
The ABA’s survey is just the latest demonstration of the need for a new national campaign by schools and civic and professional groups to educate our citizens about the meaning and importance of the role and purpose of First Amendment freedoms and, beyond that, how our government works — and why it works.
Without that effort, the warning signs are in – thanks to the ABA’s survey and others – that we could lose our basic freedoms, our representative form of self-government and undermine the basic rule of law for simply the sorrowful, sad, embarrassing reason that many of us simply will not know, or perhaps even care, that they are gone.
[The ABA Survey of Civic Literacy 2019 is available at: https://www.americanbar.org/news/reporter_resources/civic-knowledge-survey/]
Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute and an introductory speaker at the May 1 release of the ABA’s Survey on “Free Press, Free Speech, Free Society.” He can be reached at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.