From players kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games to the Obamacare repeal debate to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ move to reform how colleges handle sexual assault reports, much of recent political discussion has centered on rights.
Do players have the right to protest during the national anthem before NFL games? Do we have a right to health care? Were the on-campus procedures enacted under President Obama sufficient to protect the rights of men accused of sexual assault on campus?
At issue are fundamental disputes over what the U.S. Constitution guarantees — which is a problem because a lot of Americans have no idea what the Constitution says or what it means.
A recent survey of more than 1,000 adults by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that Americans know little about government and politics and are not particularly interested in learning.
The study found 37 percent could not name a single right endowed by the First Amendment, and 48 percent could name only one – freedom of speech. But only 15 percent knew the First Amendment meant freedom of religion, 14 percent knew about freedom of the press, 10 percent knew of the right to peaceably assemble and 3 percent were aware they could petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Moreover, the survey found 39 percent support allowing Congress to stop the media from reporting on issues related to national security. The good news is that number is down from 55 percent in 2015.
The media appears to have a limited understanding as well. One publication cited the players’ freedom of speech rights as enabling them to mount their protests. Actually, their freedom of speech rights can be curtailed at the whim of team owners. It is the right to petition government the players were expressing.
Numerous commentators also backed Sen. Bernie Sanders, I.-Vt., in his claim that health care is a right. The rights in the Constitution forbid the government to infringe on our rights. The U.S. Constitution has some positive rights, such as the right to a fair trial before a jury of our peers, to confront our accusers, to have access to evidence against us, to protect our belongings against unwarranted searches and seizures and to protect our property from government whim.
There is no right that says the government must ensure we have access to health insurance or even health care. Society has made some decisions through our elected representatives to pay for health care and health insurance for those who cannot afford it, the young and the old. But Congress is not bound by the works of past Congresses, and if 218 votes can be garnered in the House and 50 in the Senate, those programs could be ended without any redress for recipients.
The poll also found only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of the federal government. Conservatives were more likely to be able to name them than liberals or moderates, but the overall number of people who are aware of this important distinction fell 12 percent in the last six years. A full third could not name any of the three branches.
Annenberg was careful to point out conservatives are wrong at a higher rate on questions involving illegal immigration. Two-thirds thought illegal aliens had no legal recourse, compared to 48 percent of moderates and 46 percent of liberals.
The truth is illegal immigrants do have some rights, including 4th and 5th Amendment rights to fair trial and to not have to incriminate oneself, and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
Others thought people could be denied their basic rights because of their religion.
In response, groups such as the Bill of Rights Institute have created entire curricula for middle and high school students to learn about civics, and the Annenberg Center has partnered with 30 other groups to create the Civics Renewal Network, which also offers free materials online.
“Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fat that many don’t is worrisome,” said Katherine Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
“These results emphasize the need for high-quality civics education in the schools and for press reporting that underscores the existence of constitutional protections.”