chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

ABA Survey of Civic Literacy: The findings

“It’s just critical that if we are going to survive as a nation, that all our citizens know and understand the fundamental beliefs that caused the formation of this country and stand at the bottom, the bedrock foundation, for the things in which we most strongly believe. So you have to start at the beginning — and that means the Declaration of Independence.” 

– Justice Sandra Day O’Connor

According to a new national poll conducted by the American Bar Association, 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.

The nationally representative poll of 1,000 members of the American public found troubling gaps in their knowledge of American history and government, as well as constitutional rights. One in 10 think the Declaration of Independence freed slaves in the Confederate states and almost 1 in 5 believe the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution are called the Declaration of Independence instead of the Bill of Rights.


The Survey of Civic Literacy was done by phone and online interviews conducted in March 2019, and the results were released on the national Law Day celebration on May 1 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. 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 Division for Public Education, provided insights into the survey findings on civic knowledge and support for the First Amendment.

“Making sure that people living in America know their rights and responsibilities is too important to leave to chance,” said Carlson. “Moving forward, the ABA’s Standing Committee on 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.

Among the findings of the survey, which aligns with this year’s Law Day theme of “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society:”

The U.S. public expresses strong support for freedom of speech. Eighty-one percent of the public agrees that people should be able to publicly criticize the U.S. president or any other government leader and three-quarters agree that government should not be able to prevent news media from reporting on political protests. Fully 80 percent of the public agrees that individuals and organizations should have the right to request government records or information. And 88 percent correctly say that the government does not have the right to review what journalists write before it is published under the First Amendment.

The public showed some confusion over what the First Amendment protects. Nearly 1 in 5 said freedom of the press is not protected by the First Amendment and 20 percent said the right of people to peaceably assemble does not fall under the First Amendment. More than half incorrectly think the First Amendment does not permit the burning the American flag in political protest under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down laws that forbid flag-burning, ruling first in 1989 that under the First Amendment a person cannot be penalized for such action.

A majority of the public knows basic facts about the structure of government and the U.S. Constitution. For instance, 93 percent know the two chambers of Congress are the House of Representatives and the Senate. Almost 90 percent know the first words of the U.S. Constitution are “We the People,” although nearly 1 in 10 believe the first three words are “I Pledge Allegiance.”

There is 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 public also demonstrated a lack of basic knowledge about the rights and responsibilities accorded under the Constitution. Less than half know that only U.S. citizens can hold federal elective office, more than 1 in 5 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. A little more than 1 in 6 think that due process of law is only available to U.S. citizens. And 30 percent believe that non-citizens do not have the right of freedom of speech.

The survey pulled questions from the pool of 100 possible questions on the U.S. Naturalization test that can be asked of those seeking U.S. citizenship. Only 5 percent of respondents answered all 15 civic questions correctly.

To view the questions and the full report, download the ABA Survey of Civic Literacy.

How you can make a difference

There are a number of ways you can help raise our country’s civic literacy. The ABA Law Day Planning guide offers tools to help develop, publicize and implement a successful event even after May 1. Resources include suggested videos, programming ideas, 25 important free speech and free press moments in U.S. history, talking points, lesson plans, themed products and an event checklist.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.