Many don’t know key facts about U.S. Constitution, Annenberg civics study finds

Many Americans do not know what rights are protected under the First Amendment and a substantial number cannot name all three branches of government, according to the 2023 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual, nationally representative survey finds that when U.S. adults are asked to name the specific rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, only one right is recalled by most of the respondents: freedom of speech, which 77% named.

The civics knowledge survey, released annually to celebrate Constitution Day (Sept. 17), also finds that although two-thirds of Americans (66%) can name all three branches of government, 10% can name two, 7% can name only one, and 17% cannot name any.

As in the recent past, the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey was fielded in a year of high-profile events that propelled the workings of government into the daily news cycle. This year saw four criminal indictments of former President Donald Trump and numerous trials for those charged in the 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Led by a conservative supermajority, the U.S. Supreme Court sidelined race-conscious college admissions programs and a Biden Administration student loan forgiveness plan. Several of the associate justices were dogged by allegations of unethical conduct. A plea deal to resolve a gun charge and tax offenses by President Joe Biden’s son Hunter collapsed, while in Congress, Republican representatives discussed whether to open impeachment proceedings against Biden.

“It is worrisome that one in six U.S. adults cannot name any of the branches of government and that only one in 20 can name all five freedoms protected by the First Amendment,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and director of the survey. “One is unlikely to cherish or work to protect freedoms one does not know one has and will have trouble holding elected and unelected leaders accountable if one does not understand the nature and prerogatives of each branch and the ways in which the power of each is kept in check.”

How the civics survey is conducted—and what’s different this year

The Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey is a nationally representative survey conducted annually in advance of Constitution Day by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania. This year’s survey of 1,482 U.S. adults was conducted for APPC by independent research company SSRS from Aug. 9-15, 2023. It has a margin of error of ± 3.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

For the first time, the annual civics survey presented this year was conducted online rather than by telephone. The online survey, conducted as part of a wave of the Annenberg Science and Public Health (ASAPH) knowledge study, was self-administered, meaning that respondents completed it without an interviewer’s assistance. In 2022, APPC conducted two versions of the survey: one over the phone and one online. There, researchers found—as have similar studies from the Pew Research Center—that there were differences in some responses between online and telephone respondents. In the survey, online respondents generally had higher knowledge levels than phone respondents. Beginning with this year’s survey, APPC will be conducting the Constitution Day survey online only, and therefore cannot fairly compare knowledge levels from this year to those gathered by phone in prior years. Because of this change in methodology, this year’s knowledge findings will not be presented as part of a historical trend.

Research shifted from telephone to online surveys because phone surveys have become increasingly difficult to conduct reliably, with very low response rates. Accordingly, APPC, like other public opinion researchers and news organizations such as Gallup, Pew, NORC, and CNN, has decided to add or transition to online panels of nationally representative individuals. In an accompanying white paper, written by APPC research analyst Shawn Patterson Jr. and edited by a survey research team, the researchers explain the interventions that they have tested and implemented to maximize the likelihood that responses reflect what respondents actually know. These interventions aim to discourage those who might otherwise consider looking up answers to unfamiliar questions in the online survey, a move less likely when being asked knowledge questions by phone.

“Whether giving people a chance to reread a question and search their memory for an accurate response is a better way to assess civic knowledge than asking top-of-mind recall over the phone is an open question,” Jamieson observes. “But whether one prefers online to phone questions or not, the bottom line across our surveys remains the same–a concerning number cannot muster the knowledge needed to exercise their constitutional rights or make sense of the workings of our system of government.”

The survey was conducted under the supervision of Ken Winneg, APPC’s managing director of survey research, and the analysis and graphics were prepared by APPC research analyst Shawn Patterson Jr.

For the survey questions and data, read the topline.

For more on the mode effects, see the white paper.

The three branches of government

The 2023 survey found that 66% of U.S. adults could name all three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—while 10% could name two of the branches and 7% could name only one. About one in six people (17%) could not name any branches.

A pie chart measuring American’s knowledge of the three branches of government.
Image: Courtesy of Annenberg Public Policy Center

Poor knowledge of First Amendment rights

When respondents are asked to name the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, the only right with widespread recognition is freedom of speech:

  • Three-quarters (77%) name freedom of speech.
  • Less than half (40%) name freedom of religion.
  • A third (33%) name the right to assembly.
  • Just over a quarter (28%) name freedom of the press.
  • And less than one in 10 (9%) know the right to petition the government.

In all, only 5% of the U.S. adults surveyed correctly name all five First Amendment rights while 30% could name three or four of the rights. Nearly half of those surveyed (46%) could name one or two First Amendment rights, and 20% could not correctly name any.

A surprisingly large number of respondents, over one in five (22%), replied by listing the right to bear arms, which is a right under the Second Amendment, not the First. The researchers hypothesize that, seeing five empty text boxes, web panelists may have called to mind any other right with which they are familiar.

A graph chart of American’s knowledge of 1st amendment protections.
Image: Courtesy of Annenberg Public Policy Center

Over half (53%) think it is accurate to say that the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech means that Facebook must permit all Americans to freely express themselves on Facebook pages, while nearly half (47%) say that is not accurate.

While the First Amendment protects citizens from government action to limit speech, courts have ruled that social media companies such as Facebook are private companies are not covered by it.

The Supreme Court and other issues

The survey asked knowledge questions and an attitude question about the court.

Over half of those surveyed (51%) disapprove of the way the Supreme Court is handling its job, while 49% approve. This finding is more positive than past surveys by APPC and other organizations. In APPC’s 2022 online panel, 42% approved of the court and 58% disapproved. By comparison, in August 2023 Gallup found Supreme Court approval at 40%.

Graph of American’s knowledge of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Image: Annenberg Public Policy Center

Survey respondents were asked what percentage of Supreme Court cases in the past year they thought were decided by a 9-0 or 8-1 vote—a unanimous or near-unanimous vote. Respondents were invited to fill in a number between zero and 100. A fifth (22%) offered answers that fell correctly in the 41%-60% range. Other responses were widely distributed—and on average, respondents thought 35% of the rulings were 9-0 or 8-1.

Though attention has been paid to the divisions on the court, with its 6-3 conservative-liberal split among the justices, over half the decisions in the 2022-23 term were decided by a 9-0 or 8-1 consensus.

The fact that so many decisions are effectively unanimous is surprising to many Americans, but it reflects something deeper about the court, says Matt Levendusky, a Penn political science professor in the School of Arts & Sciences and Stephen and Mary Baran Chair in the Institutions of Democracy at APPC. “While some high-profile issues are divisive, much of what comes before the court is not. On many issues, justices of all ideological stripes agree on what should be done. This is important to remember when assessing the court’s function as well,” Levendusky notes.

A graph of American’s knowledge of voting coalitions on the Supreme Court.
Image: Annenberg Public Policy Center

Over seven in 10 respondents (71%) accurately say that when the Supreme Court rules 5-4 on a case, the decision needs to be followed. In the survey, 16% say a 5-4 ruling means that a decision would be sent back to Congress for reconsideration, while 12% indicate that the decision is sent back to the federal court of appeals to be decided.

If the president and Supreme Court differ on whether an action by the president is constitutional, who has the final responsibility for determining whether it is constitutional—the president, Congress, or the Supreme Court? Just over half of the survey respondents (54%) correctly say the Supreme Court, while 21% say Congress and 4% say the president. Another 21% say they are not sure or don’t know.

Civics education associated with knowledge

An APPC analysis found that reporting having taken a high school civics class continues to be associated with correct answers to civics knowledge questions, including knowledge of the three branches; knowledge of First Amendment rights; the meaning of a 5-4 Supreme Court decision; the Supreme Court having the final say on the constitutionality of a president’s actions; and knowing that Facebook is not covered by the First Amendment.

In 2023, nearly six in 10 (59%) of respondents with at least some high school education said they had taken a civics course in high school that focused on the Constitution or judicial system, about the same as in previous years we have asked this question. A third of those with at least some college education (33%) said they had taken a college course that focused on the U.S. system of government and the Constitution.

Constitution Day and the Civics Survey

The Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey is released by APPC for Constitution Day, which celebrates the signing of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. APPC’s initiatives to enhance civics education include Annenberg Classroom, which offers free resources for teaching the Constitution, and the Civics Renewal Network, a coalition of 43 nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations dedicated to improving civics education by providing free, high-quality resources for teachers. Among those resources: CRN’s Constitution Day Toolkit for teachers and Annenberg Classroom short films released this year on our nation’s newest holiday, Juneteenth, and on the landmark Supreme Court First Amendment case New York Times v. Sullivan, one in a series of award-winning videos.

This story originally appeared in Annenberg Public Policy Center.