Americans' Civics Knowledge Up In 2020

By Kevin Penton | September 20, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

Turns out there may be a plus side after all to a long period of impeachment brawls, contentious U.S. Supreme Court nominee fights and numerous investigations and scandals: More Americans are up on their civics knowledge.


For example, nearly three-quarters know that freedom of speech is one of the five rights protected by the First Amendment, according to a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

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When Annenberg asked the same First Amendment question just three years ago, only 15% of the U.S. population knew that freedom of religion was protected by the First Amendment, according to an announcement by the center. That's up to 47% in the most recent survey, with the knowledge that the First Amendment protects freedom of the press right behind at 42%, up from 14% in 2017, according to the survey.

Knowledge of the right to assembly is up to 34% from only 10% in 2017, while knowledge of the right to petition the government is 14%, up from 3%, according to Annenberg's survey. Additionally, just over half of all Americans know the names of all three branches of government, up from 39% the previous year.

Annenberg Public Policy Center Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson chalks up at least some of the results to a long period of divided government, during which a seemingly endless string of controversies may have elevated the conversation on the basic facts of how the nation is constituted.

"Divided government, the impeachment process and the number of times political leaders have turned to the courts probably deserve credit for increasing awareness of the three branches," Jamieson said in a statement on Sept. 14. "Controversies over the right to peacefully assemble, freedom of religion and freedom of speech may have done the same for the First Amendment."

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Annenberg conducted the survey among 1,009 adults in the United States from Aug. 4 to 9. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6%.

Not all the findings were relatively positive: Only 47% knew that it takes a two-thirds majority in the U.S. House and Senate to override a presidential veto, the lowest percentage since Annenberg asked the question in 2007, according to the survey.

On the topic of the Supreme Court, 56% of Americans believe that the justices base their rulings on the Constitution rather than on their own political views, compared to 49% in 2019. Thirty-seven percent think that justices appointed either by Democratic or Republican presidents will rule with their respective parties, down from 41% last year, according to the survey.

Jamieson cited recent rulings by the high court on matters such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and on the 1964 Civil Rights Act barring discrimination in the workplace against the LGBT community.

"The actions of the court in the past year appear to have effectively signaled that the justices who cast the decisive votes were guided by the Constitution, laws and facts of the case more so than by which political party would applaud the outcome," Jamieson said.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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