March 11, 2006

Civics lesson

Remember that survey about Americans' knowledge of the five members of the Simpsons family vs. their knowledge of the "five freedoms" guaranteed by the First Amendment? ("Counting Freedoms, Simpsons and Percentages"; "Freedom of Speech: More Famous than Bart Simpson".) I wasn't the only one who thought that the press coverage told us more about the art of American public relations than about the state of American civics instruction. Carl Bialik, the WSJ's "Numbers Guy", picked up the problem with the survey question in his column today:

The survey boiled [the First Amendment] down to five freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition for redress of grievances.

But as the blog Language Log pointed out, "The wording of the First Amendment only mention two 'freedoms' as such (speech and press), plus two 'rights' (assembly and petition); and religion gets mentioned twice (no establishment of it, no prohibition of it)," but the survey only counted it as one freedom."

Jamin Raskin, professor of constitutional law at American University, told me he considers the First Amendment to contain six rights: He treats free exercise of religion and the establishment clause separately. "It's clear as matter of constitutional doctrine that establishment doctrine and exercise clause are different thing," he told me.

Carl also picked up on the way the survey numbers were spun:

What's more, the details of the survey (which was conducted for the museum by market-research firm Synovate) aren't quite as dramatic as the headline. Yes, hardly anyone knew all five of the freedoms, at least as the survey defined them. But 69% of respondents got freedom of speech, arguably one of the more important provisions of the First Amendment. (By comparison, the most familiar Simpson family member, Bart, was named by 61% of those surveyed.)

All in all, I think this is an excellent topic for a civics lesson -- in the need to discount the rhetoric of survey-spinning!

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 11, 2006 08:07 AM