ABA sees ‘troubling gaps’ in civics knowledge in 2019 survey results

Members of the American public strongly support the First Amendment, but a recent American Bar Association civics literacy survey revealed that some confusion remains about what it actually protects. 

Findings of a national survey conducted by the ABA were released at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Wednesday in honor of National Law Day. The results, which go hand-in-hand with the 2019 Law Day theme of “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society,” revealed what the ABA called “troubling gaps” in the public’s basic knowledge of American civics.

The Survey of Civic Literacy https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/news/2019/05/ABASurveyOfCivicLiteracy.pdf measures the public’s support for the First Amendment, public understanding of how it applies in everyday situations and general knowledge about the law, the government and the U.S. Constitution, the survey says.  

While 81 percent expressed support for the notion that people should be able to criticize the U.S. president or any other government leader, nearly one in five survey takers think freedom of the press is not protected by the First Amendment.

Similarly, nearly 20 percent said the right of people to peaceably assemble does not fall under the First Amendment, and more than 50 percent incorrectly think the First Amendment does not permit the burning of the American flag in political protest.

Portions of the survey also revealed that less than half of the U.S. public knows that John Roberts is chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Almost one quarter think Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the chief justice, and 16 percent believe it is Justice Clarence Thomas.

Although most of those surveyed correctly answered basic facts about the structure of government and the U.S. Constitution, results were less promising on some core democratic principles. For instance, although 78 percent correctly know that the term “the rule of law” means no one is above the law, 15 percent incorrectly think it means “the law is always right.”

Less than half of the public know that only U.S. citizens can hold a federal elected office. More than one in five believe only American citizens are responsible for paying taxes, and more than 10 percent believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for obeying the law, the survey revealed.

One in six surveyed think due process of law is only available to American citizens, and 30 percent believe non-citizens do not have the right of freedom of speech.

Notable gaps were also revealed in the knowledge of younger survey takers between the ages of 18 and 44, finding only two-thirds of that demographic could identify the president as the commander in chief. Likewise, just over half knew the Speaker of the House would become president if both president and vice president could no longer serve, as compared to 67 percent of those 45 and older who answered correctly.

“Making sure that people living in America know their rights and responsibilities is too important to leave to chance,” ABA President Bob Carlson said in a statement. “Moving forward, the ABA’s Standing Committee on Public Education will launch an educational program based on these survey results, to re-acquaint the public with the law and the Constitution.

“We cannot be content to sit on the sidelines as democracy plays out in front of us. For the sake of our country, we all need to get in the game,” Carlson said.

Survey takers consisted of 1,000 adults nationally ages 18 and older. Answers were submitted online and or through phone interviews between Feb. 20 and March 5, 2019. The margin of error is 4.3 percent.

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