Does the Bill of Rights Guarantee the Right to…Own a Pet?
Thomas Jefferson once said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant & free… it expects what never was and never will be.”
One can only imagine Jefferson’s reaction to a recent national survey by the respected Annenberg Public Policy Center.
The Annenberg survey found that a terrifying large number of Americans are unfamiliar with even the most basic and most fundamental facts about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the structure of the U.S. government.
- Only one in three Americans (31 percent) could name all three branches of the U.S. government. Thirty-two percent could not identify even one.
- More than one in four Americans (28 percent) incorrectly thinks a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling is sent back either to Congress for reconsideration or to the lower courts for a decision.
- Fully 12 percent say the Bill of Rights includes… the right to own a pet.
- One American in four thinks the Bill of Rights guarantees “equal pay for equal work.”
This ignorance, alas, is nothing new. Many surveys over the years have reported similarly depressing findings.
Perhaps this partially explains why the Annenberg survey also found that significant percentages of Americans support getting rid of some of our most fundamental liberties:
- Thirty-one percent say the government should have the power to outlaw a religion if a majority of voters believe it holds “un-American views.” Another 13 percent don’t care one way or another. Less than half (46 percent) oppose this.
- Twenty-seven percent say the government should be able to prohibit a peaceful march down a main street if the marchers’ views are offensive to the majority of a town’s residents. Another 15 percent don’t care. A little more than half (54 percent) oppose.
- Twelve percent support giving the government the power to stop the press from publishing articles critical of the government (prior restraint). Another 9 percent don’t care one way or the other.
- Nearly half (46 percent) oppose current prohibitions on “double jeopardy,” the practice of retrying a person for the same crime twice if new evidence emerges after a not-guilty verdict.
- One-quarter of those surveyed (26 percent) favor requiring a person to testify against himself in court. Another 17 percent don’t care either way.
- A quarter of the respondents (25 percent) agreed that “it might be better to do away with the Supreme Court altogether” if it starts making a lot of rulings most Americans disagreed with.
Whatever your beliefs about government, the Constitution — and especially the Bill of Rights — has historically been the greatest resource for the day-to-day peaceful protection of American liberties. Thoughtful people of all political persuasions — liberals, conservatives and libertarians alike — find much common ground in these documents.
The lack of knowledge the Annenberg survey found constitutes nothing less than a civil liberties emergency.
Can anything be done to change this? Can you personally do anything?
Yes. We have many tools available to us, and many opportunities.
Here are some suggestions:
- Share with your inner circle. Most of us have our greatest influence over those closest to us: children, grandchildren, other family members, close friends, neighbors, business associates, and so on. Share with them the importance of understanding how the government is structured and why our Bill of Rights freedoms are so vital. Encourage them to share them with others, creating a ripple effect. If your children attend a school, ask what is being done to teach these issues.
- Use social media. Most of us are in contact with a great variety of people through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other social media. Share this crucial information via videos, memes, links to news stories and articles. (The Annenberg poll press release, linked at the start of this article, will shock and amaze many of your friends and followers.)
- Use holidays.Bill of Rights Day, (December 15), Constitution Day (September 17), and Independence Day (July 4) offer especially good opportunities to discuss these issues with family, friends, social media followers, and so on. They are great times for letters to the editor discussing the vital importance of our Bill of Rights freedoms and the need to understand them. Such letters can reach thousands or even tens of thousands or more people. Just a few letters in large newspapers can reach millions. Put these holidays on your calendar!
(By the way, all publicly funded educational institutions — including any schools receiving federal funds of any kind — are required to provide educational programming on the history of the American Constitution on or near Constitution Day. So on Constitution Day these matters will definitely be on the minds of many people.)
That’s just a start. Doubtless you can think of other opportunities and forums. As always, use the effective communication skills taught by the Advocates to make your communication appealing and welcome. (You’ll find lots of them in my book How to Be a Super Communicator for Liberty: Successfully Sharing Libertarian Ideas. e-book here)
It’s up to you. Government schools have failed miserably at teaching basic civics. So has the media. (The more skeptical among us might even note that government benefits enormously from having the public ignorant about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.)
As the great libertarian writer Harry Browne pointed out: “If the American people are to learn the importance of limited, Constitutional government, we have to teach them ourselves.” We have the power to reach those closest to us, and to reach — via letters, speeches, social media and many other ways — millions more Americans as well. Are you ready?