A new survey has found that significantly more Americans today are knowledgeable about the Constitution, which turns 233 on Thursday, than they were three years ago.
According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, 51% of Americans can name the three branches of government, compared to 39% in 2017. And 73% can identify free speech as one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, compared to 48% in 2017.
The results of the public policy center’s annual Constitution Day Civics Survey, conducted in early August, suggest that the contentious atmosphere in Washington, D.C., as well as nationwide protests and unexpected Supreme Court decisions could be spurring Americans to learn civics, the survey’s authors say.
“Divided government, the impeachment process, and the number of times political leaders have turned to the courts probably deserve credit for increasing awareness of the three branches,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the policy center. “[C]ontroversies over the right to peaceably assemble, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech may have done the same for the First Amendment.”
The findings echo results published last year by the Freedom Forum’s State of the First Amendment Survey, which found a steady increase in knowledge about freedom of the press, speech and religion safeguarded in the First Amendment.
Meanwhile, Annenberg also found a decrease (from 16% to 3%) in the percentage of respondents who identified the “right to bear arms” as being protected by the First Amendment. (It is actually guaranteed in the Second Amendment).
“People are learning a nightly civics lesson on TV,” Peter Levine, associate dean of academic affairs at Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life, told The Washington Times.
Mr. Levine said he has faith in Annenberg’s survey and wonders if the results are “unprecedented,” noting that information about civics literacy does not go back many decades in the U.S.
“Did people learn a lot in 1968?” he said. “I don’t think we have a way of knowing.”
More than half of Americans (56%) in the Annenberg survey agreed with the statement that Supreme Court justices “set aside their personal and political views” in making rulings based on the Constitution. A year ago, 49% agreed with the statement.
The survey’s director noted that conservative-led court recently has approved liberal policies such as a ban on workplace sex discrimination and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is for immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
“The actions of the court in the past year appear to have effectively signaled that the justices who cast the decisive votes were guided by the Constitution, laws and facts of the case more so than by which political party would applaud the outcome,” Ms. Jamieson said.
According to the 2020 survey:
• 47% could identify freedom of religion as part of the First Amendment, up from 15% in 2017.
• 42% could identify freedom of the press as a First Amendment right, up from 14%.
• 14% could identify the right to petition the government as part of the First Amendment, up from 3%.