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May 01, 2019

ABA Survey of Civic Literacy reveals knowledge gaps

WASHINGTON, May 1, 2019 —The American Bar Association today released the results of its first ABA Survey of Civic Literacy, which showed broad support for the First Amendment but exposed holes in the public’s knowledge of U.S. government, history and basic rights.

The survey assessed the American public’s knowledge of basic civic information, concepts and constitutional protections. The nationally representative poll also included questions about support for the First Amendment and the public’s understanding of how First Amendment protections apply in everyday situations. It was undertaken in conjunction with this year’s national Law Day theme, “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society.”

The findings found that a majority knows some fundamental facts about the structure of government and the U.S. Constitution. Ninety-five percent recognize that the Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation and 93 percent can identify the two chambers of Congress.

But the survey also shows gaps in knowledge of American government: 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.

Many in the public are confused over who has certain legal rights and responsibilities in the U.S. democracy. Thirty percent incorrectly believe that non-citizens do not have the right of freedom of speech, while more than 1 in 5 surveyed believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for paying taxes and more than 10 percent believe only U.S. citizens are responsible for obeying the law

Public support for rights guaranteed by the First Amendment was strong. Eighty-eight percent say that government does not have the right to review what journalists write before it is published, 81 percent agree that people should be able to publicly criticize the U.S. president or any other government leader and 80 percent believe that individuals and organizations should have the right to request government records or information.

But nearly 1 in 5 incorrectly thinks that freedom of the press is not protected by the First Amendment and nearly 20 percent incorrectly believe the right of people to peaceably assemble does not fall under the First Amendment. More than half mistakenly think the First Amendment does not permit burning the American flag in political protest under the First Amendment.

ABA President Bob Carlson said, “Democracy is not a spectator sport, but to participate, you need to know the rules. That’s too important to leave to chance. The ABA conducted the survey to determine how well the American public understands the law, the Constitution and their rights and responsibilities. The results clearly show that we have more work to do. American democracy does not function without a fully informed citizenry. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said, ‘The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens.’”

The official release of the results will take place Wednesday, May 1, at 4:30 p.m. at the Newseum in Washington. 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, will provide insights into the survey findings and support for the First Amendment. A livestream of the press conference at the Newseum is available here.

The American Bar Association is committed to addressing disparities in civic knowledge. The ABA’s Division for Public Education promotes the understanding of the law through its programming and law-related resources for educators, professionals and students. The division will launch an educational program based on the survey findings to help the public with the law and the Constitution.  

The survey results and other Law Day materials including video and releases, are available on the reporters’ resources page, here.

Click here to see a video on the survey.

With more than 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law. View our privacy statement online. Follow the latest ABA news at and on Twitter @ABANews.