PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — American politics may be in a disheveled state right now, but it’s apparently making more people aware of their rights as citizens, a new survey reveals. Researchers from the University of the Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center say knowledge about civics has actually increased over the last year — reaching its highest levels since 2006.
The center’s annual poll of more than 1,000 people finds 56 percent of Americans are now capable of naming all three branches of government. In 2006, just 33 percent of respondents could accurately say the three branches include the executive, legislative, and judicial.
Moreover, following a divisive impeachment trial, contentious election, multiple court battles, and deadly riot at the Capitol, Americans have come out of the last year with a great understanding of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Three-quarters of the poll (74%) correctly stated that the First Amendment protects the freedom of speech. However, fewer respondents knew it also protects the freedom of religion (56%), freedom of the press (50%), the right to assembly (30%), or the right to petition (20%).
“Higher proportions of the public have a foundational awareness of the three branches and the protections in the First Amendment,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center in a media release. “But this knowledge appears to have been purchased at a real cost. It was a contentious year in which the branches of government were stress-tested.”
Facebook and the freedom of speech
Despite more people brushing up on their knowledge of one of America’s most important documents, how they apply that knowledge is still leading to some confusion. With controversy over how social media platforms like Facebook censor and block people’s posts continuing, the poll looked at how the public views these actions.
Six in 10 Americans (61%) incorrectly stated that the First Amendment’s protection of free speech means Facebook must permit all users to freely express themselves on their website. Researchers explain that the First Amendment protects citizens from government censorship, but social media companies and their platforms are private entities. Therefore, the courts have ruled that the freedom of speech doesn’t cover these forums.
Despite this, 66 percent of conservatives, 61 percent of moderates, and 55 percent of liberals all believe that the First Amendment covers what people say on Facebook.
Confusion in Congress too
The public is also very fuzzy on how long the people they elect to public office stay in those jobs. Just 35 percent correctly said that a U.S. senator serves for six years. Only 36 percent knew that a congressman serves for two years.
When it comes to court rulings, only 51 percent correctly said that the Supreme Court gets the final say on whether something the president does is constitutional or not. Additionally, one in three people actually think that a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court does not become a law. Instead, these Americans incorrectly think a 5-4 ruling either goes to Congress for “reconsideration” or is sent back to a lower court level.
The Capitol riot continues to divide the nation
When it comes to the chaotic events of Jan. 6, the poll finds the country remains split evenly over whether Americans had the right to protest and storm the Capitol building. In fact, 49 percent believe arresting the protesters at the U.S. Capitol violated their constitutional right to petition the government. Meanwhile, 49 percent believe arresting protesters at the Capitol did not violate the Constitution.
Surprisingly, researchers find the thought that people had a right to disrupt the process to certify Joe Biden’s election received bipartisan support. Along with 53 percent of conservatives and 51 percent of moderates who think it’s unconstitutional to arrest the Capitol rioters, 42 percent of liberals agree with this belief.