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New ABA Civic Literacy Survey reveals knowledge gaps

The ABA celebrated Law Day May 1 with the release of a new national Survey of Civic Literacy and other programs related to the 2019 Law Day theme of “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society.” The survey 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. While the report demonstrates strong support for the First Amendment, it reveals some troubling gaps in the public’s basic civic literacy.

According to the national poll, less than half of the U.S. public knows that John Roberts is chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, while almost one-quarter think it is Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 16 percent believe it is Clarence Thomas. And while a majority of the public knows basic facts about the structure of government and the U.S. Constitution, the survey showed confusion over some core democratic principles. For instance, 78 percent correctly know that the term “the rule of law” means no one is above the law, but fully 15 percent believe incorrectly that it means “the law is always right.”

The Survey of Civic Literacy was released at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., in a program featuring ABA President Bob Carlson; Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals; Gene Policinski, president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute; and Ruthe Catolico Ashley, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Public Education.

“Making sure that people living in America know their rights and responsibilities is too important to leave to chance,” said ABA President Bob Carlson. “Moving forward, the ABA’s Division for 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,” he said.

Other survey questions aligned with this year’s Law Day theme of “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society.” Results found some confusion over what the First Amendment protects. While 81 percent express support that people should be able to criticize the U.S. president or any other government leader, nearly 1 in 5 think freedom of the press is not protected by the First Amendment.

Click here to see a video on the survey.

Other Law Day programs in the nation’s capital included a May 1 interview with the ABA president and Law Librarian of Congress Jane Sánchez on the state of free speech at the Law Library of Congress, and a student dialogue at a local high school with CNN reporter Jim Acosta. That evening, the Leon Jaworski Public Program entitled, “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society: The Marketplace of Ideas in an Era of Fake News,” featured remarks by Floyd Abrams, senior partner, Cahill Gordon & Reindel; Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor, Slate; Frederick Schauer, David and Mary Harrison Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law; Nicole Wong, senior advisor, Albright Stonebridge Group and former White House deputy chief technology officer; and Policinski of the Freedom Forum. Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, moderated the discussion.

Envisioned in 1957 by then-ABA President Charles S. Rhyne as a national day to recognize the country’s commitment to the rule of law, Law Day was established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower the following year. Congress issued a joint resolution in 1961 designating May 1 as Law Day. Many civic groups and bar associations celebrate Law Day with a month of programs, presentations and events. 

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