Honoring the Guide of the Republic
George Washington described the U.S. Constitution as “the guide which I never will abandon.” While modern Americans may not have abandoned it, we certainly have become woefully ignorant of its contents. A 2002 survey commissioned by the Columbia Law School found that two-thirds of Americans thought that Karl Marx’s maxim, “From each according to his ability to each according to his need,” either appeared in the Constitution or could have been written by the constitutional Framers.
The results of this August’s Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) annual national survey to test Americans’ knowledge of the Constitution were equally sobering and can be found here. Most Americans are shockingly ill-informed about the nation’s founding document and as the APPC’s Director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson noted, “Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome.”
More than one-third of survey respondents cannot name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment and only 25 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government. Fifty-three percent of Americans believe that immigrants here illegally do not enjoy any constitutional protections. Perhaps most disturbing is that only 49 percent of those surveyed opposed prior restraint of the media. This is a drop of six percentage points in just the last year and is particularly distressing because media suppression is a good predictor of the erosion of democracy.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” helping to explain why the U.S. Supreme Court considers prior restraint, an official government restriction of speech prior to publication, as “the most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights.” Attacks on press freedoms – both legal and rhetorical – are often the first order of business for new autocrats because tyranny thrives in environments absent the transparency a robust media culture nurtures.
America’s “Guide” has survived 230 years – far longer than many who helped to draft it thought it would. It has proven flexible enough to grow with the nation, however, the “blessings of liberty” that it secures require vigilance. The best way to honor the Constitution on its 230th birthday is to study it!