Bill of Rights may be 200 years old, but it's hardly well-known to Americans

December 15, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Bill of Rights is 200 years old today -- supposedly, a familiar old friend to most Americans. A new survey suggests, however, that for many it is only a distant stranger.

The national survey, done by a Chicago firm at the request of the American Bar Association, showed that only 33 percent of those contacted knew what the Bill of Rights is: the first 10 amendments of the Constitution.

Another 28 percent thought it was the Constitution's preamble, and 22 percent thought it was any bill passed by Congress dealing with rights. Seven percent identified it as a rebellious message sent to the British monarchy by the colonists, and 10 percent did not know what it is or did not answer.

The ABA released the survey results today as part of a campaign to make Americans more familiar with the Constitution and with the fundamental guarantees of individual rights that were formally added to it 200 years ago on this date.

Simultaneously, the ABA released final recommendations of a study group that had met here in September. The proposals included a plea to make "study of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights the central component" of pre-college education, "second no other area of study, including mathematics and science."

That study also suggested that every teacher of social studies in the country should have formal training on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights before teaching. Every student in grade and high school should get "regular and systematic instruction" about the meaning of those basic documents, the study group recommended.

The ABA's survey of attitudes and knowledge about the Bill of Rights was done last July by Research USA Inc. of Chicago, in telephone contacts with 507 individuals nationwide. Of those surveyed, 87 percent were white, 44 percent had gone no further than high school and 53 percent were under age 45.

Only 9 percent of those surveyed knew why the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution: to limit abuses by the federal government. Thirty-three percent thought its purpose was to give citizens equality.

Although the First Amendment now protects most forms of expression, 23 percent of those surveyed thought advertising had no protection, and 19 percent thought that about Communist propaganda.

Amid the nationwide controversy over "hate speech" and attempts to ban public expression of "politically incorrect" sentiments, 51 percent agreed that the government should ban speech "that demeans someone's race, sex, national origin, or religion." A total of 41 percent, however, opposed that idea.

Reflecting suspicion of the press, an attitude that other surveys have discovered, 46 percent of those surveyed by the ABA thought that Congress should forbid the press to report on any issue of national security without first getting government approval, a form of "prior restraint" outlawed by the First Amendment.

Those surveyed had other ideas that differed from the Bill of Rights as it now exists and is understood. Seventy-eight percent said that a court must appoint a lawyer to represent anyone who is sued in a civil case for damaging property, if that person could not afford to hire a lawyer. The Constitution now is understood to guarantee free lawyers for the poor, but only in criminal cases.

In other respects, however, the survey found that a good many Americans do understand some parts of the Bill of Rights.

Asked whether public schools may start the day with a moment of silence -- something that the Supreme Court has implied that it would allow -- 69 percent said yes. A total of 67 percent understood, correctly, that the president cannot suspend the Bill of Rights in wartime. A full 80 percent knew that if they were arrested, they had no duty to answer police questions -- perhaps reflecting the use of "Miranda warnings" on television police shows.

When asked about some ways to change the Bill of Rights, a sizable proportion gave some answers flatly contradicting existing provisions. For example, 41 percent said that police should be allowed to search the homes of suspected drug

dealers without a search warrant; 54 percent, however, opposed that idea.

Further worry over the drug problem seemed to be reflected in the survey's finding that 51 percent would be willing to give up some of their own freedoms "in order to win the war on drugs." Another 37 percent, however, said they would not.

On ideas for expanding the kinds of rights Americans ought to have, the surveyed group came out by a 72-percent-to-20 percent margin for a constitutional guarantee of "adequate health care for all Americans" -- a further confirmation of the recent political popularity of national health care reform.

The Bill of Rights

The Constitution's first 10 amendments -- informally called the Bill of Rights -- provide these protections to all Americans and to foreigners in this country, even temporarily:

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