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Exercising the Right to Be Ignorant

OK, so it's not protected by the Constitution, but a survey finds few would know for sure.

March 02, 2006|Gerry Doyle | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — A survey released Wednesday showcases a bit of data that should surprise nobody: Americans know more about "The Simpsons" than they do about the 1st Amendment.

The study, conducted by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, focuses on the 1st Amendment and found that less than 1% of the respondents could identify the five protected rights: freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly and to petition the government.

On the other hand, about 20% of respondents could name Bart and Homer and the other three members of the animated Simpson family.

The random telephone survey of 1,000 U.S. adults was conducted Jan. 20-22. The survey has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

"There was a depth of ... confusion that we weren't expecting," said Dave Anderson, executive director of the museum that is to open April 11 in Chicago. "I think people take their freedoms for granted. Bottom line."

The constitutional confusion extended beyond what is written in the 1st Amendment. Many respondents also had interesting ideas about items the framers did not include.

The right to own pets, for example, which 21% of respondents said was listed someplace between "Congress shall make no law" and "redress of grievances." Seventeen percent said that the amendment contained the right to drive a car. And 38% thought that "taking the 5th Amendment" was part of the 1st.

The problem, Anderson said, is that most people don't see any point in memorizing the 1st Amendment.

The survey "isn't surprising, because it's rational to be ignorant of these things," said Northwestern University law professor John O. McGinnis, a constitutional law expert.

"You don't get much for knowing the particulars."

He suggested a new reality TV program as a way to stir popular interest in the Constitution. Call it "The Supremes."

"I'm in favor of ... more publicity for the Supreme Court," he said, advocating that its cases be televised.

Columbia University law professor Michael Dorf said the results weren't shocking. "I wouldn't give people a very hard time for not knowing that freedom of religion is protected by the 1st Amendment," Dorf said.

Which isn't to say that there aren't any drawbacks to widespread ignorance, he said.

If people ignore their rights, Dorf said, those rights might disappear.

The museum is run by the McCormick Tribune Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization separate from Tribune Co. with substantial holdings in Tribune Co. stock.

"It's obvious what should happen here," Dorf said. The Constitution "should be featured in an episode of 'The Simpsons.' "

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