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Make better Americans

As the Daughters of the American Revolution begins to celebrate Constitution Week today, the Annenberg Public Policy Center has released the results of a civics survey that exposes an alarming ignorance among the American people about what the U.S. Constitution — our nation’s organizing document — actually set into place.

Among the unfortunate conclusions are these:

  • More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) cannot name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of the federal government.
  • Although 48 percent (still less than half of those surveyed) are aware that freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment, only 14 percent know that freedom of the press also is protected there.
  • Just 15 percent were able to name freedom of religion as one of the five rights enumerated by the First Amendment.
  • Only 10 percent recognize the right of peaceable assembly as one of America’s core principles.
  • A paltry 3 percent of Americans know that the right to petition the government is listed in the First Amendment.

Is it any wonder that college campuses erupt in violence when speakers with unpopular views on those campuses seek to be heard? Is there any doubt that ignorance about our Constitution — and, by extension, a lack of understanding about the responsibilities that come with those rights — has contributed to a decline in the Republic?

Only an America that is ignorant of its founding principles could rally behind those who violently quash free speech in the public square because some group or another considers it “offensive.” Even reprehensible speech — and, perhaps, especially reprehensible speech — is protected under the First Amendment. The right not to be offended is certainly not among the rights described there.

Only an America that is ignorant about the Constitution could consider “offensive” speech in the public square something to be censored by the government and then fail to understand that individuals do not have such guaranteed rights in the context of their employment. One can say whatever he wants while on the clock for a private company, but one’s employer also has a free-speech right to set the rules regarding what sorts of statements are acceptable in that setting.

The results of the Annenberg survey are chilling for those who worry about the true future of free speech in America. Judging from the results, the simple fact is that if they had to take the test required of those who seek citizenship in this nation, most Americans would struggle to get the six right answers out of 10 that are required to pass the test.

What makes an American? The answers to that question often reveal the fissures that divide the nation politically, and they often carry the cumbersome baggage of the respondents’ hopes and dreams.

But it should be clear that America is, at least in large part, defined and described by the founding principles of the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, Americans should be similarly described, and, thus being described, they should recognize both their rights and their responsibilities as citizens of this nation.

Our schools must do a better job at preparing students to be Americans.