A Simpson-Watcher Assesses Our Constitutional Literacy

March 5, 2006

Indiana Writers Group column for March 8 and thereafter
568 words

by Nicole Garnett

Here is something bound to keep late-night comics busy: A recent poll revealed that Americans apparently know more about the television cartoon series "The Simpsons" than about the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Only one in four respondents could name more than one of the rights protected by the First Amendment; only one in a thousand could name all of them. Yet, over half of the respondents could name two members of the Simpson family, and 22 percent could name all five. The poll also found that more Americans can name three American Idol judges than three First Amendment rights.

These results have produced much tongue clucking in certain circles, as polls of a certain genre (that is, those designed to reveal that Americans are dumb) often do. A spokesman for the McCormick-Tribune Freedom Museum, which conducted the poll, observed, for example, that "part of our mission is to clear up these misconceptions . . . It means we have our job cut out for us."

I confess that I am a Simpsons-watching law professor. I not only can name the members of the Simpson family (and of the supporting cast), but, if pressed, I could come close to reciting the First Amendment verbatim. ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.")

That said, I must admit that the poll doesn’t trouble me too much. Most Americans have a healthy understanding of their basic liberties: The fact 38 percent of the respondents mistook the protection against self-incrimination for a First-Amendment right (it actually is protected by the Fifth Amendment) is a case in point: Most people know that the police cannot make you talk.

Similarly, I doubt that many Americans fail to realize that our Constitution protects the freedom of the press, guarantees the right to free worship, and permits us to complain to — and about — the government.

Nor are Americans shy about exercising those rights vigorously.

Consider the response to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Kelo vs. New London, which permitted a city to condemn private homes and transfer them to a private developer as part of an economic development project. The opinion set off a popular firestorm that has left state and federal legislators scrambling to craft new laws that would limit the power of eminent domain. By the end of current legislative sessions, it is likely that many states will have imposed legislatively the very restrictions that the Supreme Court refused to impose judicially in Kelo.

Of course, my non-Simpson-watching colleagues might argue that the reaction to Kelo is yet more indication that the Americans are unsophisticated — after all, the decision was not inconsistent with prior legal precedents.

I take a different, more hopeful, lesson from the public reaction to Kelo. Americans understand the basics: We know that property rights are important and also that we have the right to petition our elected leaders to take steps necessary to protect those rights.

Of course, many people probably don’t know that the constitutional protection of property rights is situated in the Fifth Amendment (along with the privilege against self-incrimination — go figure), but we know enough to guarantee a healthy democracy. And that is hardly a cause for concern.

Nicole Stelle Garnett, an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is professor of law at the Notre Dame School of Law. Contact her at ngarnett@inpolicy.org.


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