According to the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans cannot name the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The survey, which is annually administered by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, has a variety of questions related to civics and government. The responses are often surprising and show just how little most Americans really know.
We wanted to know how people in our own city of Madison compared so we decided to conduct our own survey.
We asked people to name their First Amendment rights. We found that, like Morris Waxler, many people had trouble remembering which rights belong to which amendment.
“Uh, free speech? Um… Well there’s the, hm… Or is that the.. I’m forgetting which is in the First Amendment. Free speech for sure…uh… is the militia or right to bear arms? No that’s not the First Amendment. That’s all I can remember. And I’m supposed to be educated,” said Waxler.
Same for Steven Pena of Madison.
“I believe it’s freedom of speech and freedom of religion if I’m not correct,” he said. “Uh, right to bear arms? Is that it? No that’s not it. I can’t remember any of the others.”
How about local elected officials? We ran into Carlo Esqueda, Clerk of Courts, and turns out even he missed a couple.
“Uh, press, assembly, speech….” listed Esqueda. “I should know this but they’re not coming to mind! Those are the ones that get the most press, I guess!”
Can you name all 5 rights? It’s ok, we’ll wait.
Most people can name freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The others are freedom of religion, along with the freedom to assemble and to petition the government.
Knowing what makes up the American government system is critical to being a politically-informed citizen. The founding fathers of our nation created this checks-and-balances system to ensure that our American freedoms will never be compromised; the less people know about this system, the more these freedoms are at risk. American democracy is formed by the executive branch, which is the president, the judicial branch, comprised of the justices that decide whether a law abides by the constitution or not, and the legislative branch, the members of Congress who represent the people and write the laws. We asked several individuals in downtown Madison if they can name these three branches of the American government.
Some individuals, like Ezra Meyer, were able to give us all three branches and in his case, even confidently.
“I can name all of them. Legislative, executive, and judicial,” he said.
Others like Louisa Ellis, however, are not quite as informed.
“Yeah … hmm … isn’t it judicial, executive, and … umm … I got two of them.”
Everyone we talked to knew at least one branch and half of all people we surveyed were able to list all three. That’s better than the national average. Last year, only a third of people surveyed by Annenberg could name all three branches of government.
Our final question was supposed to be the hardest, at least based on the national data, with less than half of respondents from the original survey giving the correct answer. The question we posed was true or false: people who are in the country illegally do not have any rights under the U.S. Constitution. We found that, although the majority of people got the question right, sentiments were fairly divided, like between Nick Clark and Ashley. Ashley did not give us her last name.
“False. They almost have more rights than we do… Come to this country from Mexico and get food stamps, government assistance, social security cards, you know the whole nine yards,” Clark told us.
“It’s false?” asked Ashley. “I mean I don’t wanna make an absolute statement, but I think, you know, especially, Republican parties…. They set out a lot of negative connotations to, um, you know, illegal immigrants being um here, or people that aren’t citizens, and all you hear about is really the negative things unfortunately, especially when you have a very Republican president…. I wish that that was, you know, that that was put out there. I feel like I should know the answer to that.”
The correct answer is false. The 14th Amendment says that every person is granted equal protection under the laws in the United States. It does not matter whether you are a citizen or not. This was proven by the Supreme Court case Yick Wo v. Hopkins.. Way back in 1886!
Recently, political polarization and disagreements have been frequently mentioned in the news. With the upcoming presidential election, there is a chance this problem will grow, but also be solved. One of the solutions is being informed about our government and its workings. Although our sample size was considerably smaller than that of the Annenberg Survey, the numbers still show that Madison is above average when it comes to knowing the structure of American government. Even so, there is room for improvement even in this area of knowledge.
“Just out of curiosity, how many people like actually know all the answers to them?” wondered Ellis.
The answer is: fewer than you would hope. Maybe now is the time to dust off those old civics facts and refresh your memory of what you learned back in high school.
This story was reported by our Simpson Street Free Press interns Leila Fletcher and Sean Zhang.