Brush Up On Basic Civics

May 3, 2019 GMT

Law Day this year, Wednesday, occurred against the backdrop of the U.S. attorney general’s appearance on Capitol Hill to answer questions about whether the current president of the United States believes he should be held to the rule of law. And as revealed in a survey conducted by the American Bar Association, many Americans have muddled views about the government’s power, the powerful people within the government, the Constitution, its history and the rights it ensures. For example, John Roberts has been chief justice of the United States for 13 years, but half of the respondents to the ABA survey did not know who he is; 23% identified Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as chief justice, and 16% percent tied the title to Justice Clarence Thomas. About 25% did not know that the first 10 constitutional amendments are the Bill of Rights, and an equal number did not know that the Declaration of Independence marked independence from Great Britain; 11% said it dealt with freeing slaves. And even though the Bill of Rights does not mention the word “citizen” and does not address citizenship, about 30% of respondents thought that free speech rights apply only to citizens rather than universally. That points to the volatile immigration issue and many of the misunderstandings that surround it regarding U.S. law. About 20% of respondents said that only citizens pay taxes and about 10% thought only citizens could be penalized for breaking laws. The survey revealed that citizens prize First Amendment rights: 81% agreed that people should be able to publicly criticize any other government leader, and 80% said anyone should have the right to request government records. And, 75% said government should not be able to prevent news coverage of political protests. Yet, 54% claimed that the First Amendment does not permit flag-burning as a form of protest, even thought the Supreme Court settled that in favor of protestors in the 1989 case, Texas v. Johnson. Civics ignorance underlies much of the volatile political discourse that is characteristic of the social media age. Americans who care about their own rights and the nation’s future would be well-advised to bone up on basic civics.