The study asked three basic questions. The first inquired whether the statement, “People who are in the US illegally do not have any rights under the US Constitution” was accurate. The second asked participants to name each right protected under the First Amendment. The third asked for participants to name the three branches of government. Let’s take the results piece by piece.
Protection under the Constitution
On the question of whether illegal immigrants were not protected by the US Constitution while within the borders of the United States, 53 percent stated this was accurate, 40 percent claimed it to be inaccurate, and the remaining 7 percent either did not know or abstained from the question. Unsurprisingly, the disparity grows between conservatives and liberals.
The 53 percent who believe that illegal immigrants are not protected by the Constitution, specifically due process, are incorrect in their assertion. In 1886, the Supreme Court acknowledged in the case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins that non-citizens were protected under the 14th Amendment. Fast forward to 1993; Justice Antonin Scalia stated in Reno v. Flores that “it is well established that the Fifth Amendment entitles aliens to due process of law in deportation proceedings.”
It’s fair to say that immigration is a volatile issue, which would partly explain the immediate reaction of rejecting an illegal immigrant’s ability to claim rights under US law, but in order for the problem of illegal immigration to be corrected, there must be a basis of understanding before any action can be taken.
First Amendment Rights
Regarding the First Amendment, one may assume that nearly everyone knows what rights it protects, from speech to religion, press, and assembly to the ability to protest and demand change from our government. Unfortunately, 37 percent of respondents could not name a single right under the First Amendment—not even speech or religion.
But it only gets worse from there. While 37 percent could not name any part of the amendment, those who could name specific rights struggled to name all of them; 15 percent listed freedom of religion; 48 percent listed freedom of speech; 14 percent listed freedom of the press; 10 percent listed the right to assembly; and only 3 percent listed the right to petition.
With growing calls to limit free speech, specifically speech that is deemed offensive, an increased understanding of the amendment that guarantees this right is vital. Being able to arbitrarily name specific rights is not enough. We must have full knowledge of the law itself.
The Three Branches of Government
Over the last two weeks, conservatives and, well, really the whole political spectrum, have openly criticized Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a newly-elected member of Congress and self-described “democratic socialist,” for being unable to correctly name the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) in a tweet that went viral. While I cannot excuse this public flub, especially for someone preparing to join the ranks of the House of Representatives, it really is indicative of a much wider problem.
Only 26 percent of respondents were able to correctly name all three branches of government in the Penn study. This was down from 33 percent from the same study in 2011, suggesting a significant regression on the part of the public. With the separation of powers being vital to the proper function of our government, it would behoove each member of the public to understand the roles of each branch so we may remain vigilant when a line is crossed or, hopefully, before the line is even approached.
A Distinct Lack of Education
So, why the failing standards of public knowledge? Have adults really just forgotten what they were taught? Not quite. Both the quantity and quality of civics education in our schools seem to be lacking.
A similar study conducted in 2011 by the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that “Only one in 10 [students] demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches….” To make matters worse, the same report found that
a smaller proportion of fourth- and eighth-graders demonstrated proficiency in civics (who we are as Americans) than in any other subject the federal government has tested since 2005, except history, American students’ worst subject.
Out of all 50 states, only 40 require a civics or US government class be taken in high school. Out of those 40 states, only 29 offer a “full curriculum,” which “includes course materials that cover ‘Explanation/Comparison of Democracy,’ ‘Constitution and Bill of Rights,’ and ‘Public Participation,’ as well as information on state and local voting laws.”
When it comes to having a requirement to demonstrate one’s knowledge in these areas, only 17 states require an exit exam for graduation. Interestingly, two of the 17 states (Kentucky and Vermont) do not require a civics course be taken despite requiring an exit exam.
Voter Ignorance Endangers Liberty
To put the final nail in the coffin of US civics education, the nation’s average AP Government test score is 2.71, which is not considered a passing score, especially since most colleges only accept a score of four or five depending on the subject. This lack of focus on civics education from both our state and federal governments is only allowing for further failure that needs to be addressed with a significant level of urgency.
With each passing year, the regression of knowledge regarding our rights, and even a basic understanding of how our government functions, limits our ability to defend our rights against government encroachment. As older generations who benefited from more in-depth civics lessons become outnumbered by younger generations, more unknowledgeable voters, activists, and eventual lawmakers will have a greater say, putting our liberties at risk.
What must be understood is that our country was founded with a singular purpose: to protect Natural Law with Man’s Law. In order for the people to continue to see their natural rights protected, there must first be an understanding of the laws that are intended to protect them.