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This year, the Annenberg Public Policy Center's annual survey revealed that Americans' knowledge of their First Amendment rights and of the functions of the United States' federal government branches has significantly increased.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

New research from Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center reveals that Americans’ civic knowledge has significantly increased over the past year — a period defined by the coronavirus pandemic, nationwide protests against racial injustice, and a contentious presidential campaign. 

Participants in the 2020 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey were primarily assessed on their knowledge of their First Amendment rights and of the functions of the United States' federal government branches. Since 2013, Annenberg has conducted the annual survey for Constitution Day, held on Sept. 17 to celebrate the signing of the Constitution. 

The study found that Americans are much more aware of all five rights protected by the First Amendment than they have been in the past. When asked to name any of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, right of assembly, or right to petition the government — only 19% of respondents were unable to name any of them, down from 37% in 2017. 

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed correctly named freedom of speech as one of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, up from 48% in 2017. 

Increased awareness of First Amendment rights may be due to “controversies over the right to peaceably assemble, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech,” Annenberg Public Policy Center Director and professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson said in the press release.

This year’s survey also asked about participants' ability to name the three branches of government, the fairness and impartiality of the Supreme Court, and the balance of power in the federal government.

A record-high 51% of respondents were able to name all three branches of the federal government – the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch – this year, up from a previous high of 39% in the 2019 survey. In the press release, Jamieson attributed this rise to “divided government, the impeachment process, and the number of times political leaders have turned to the courts” over the past year. 

The study also found that just over half of the survey respondents correctly believe the Supreme Court has the final responsibility for deciding whether an action by the president is constitutional, ten percent lower than in 2019. An increased amount of people answered it was up to Congress to decide, which the survey analysis states may reflect an overgeneralization about congressional authority. 

The Annenberg survey was conducted among 1,009 American adults from Aug. 4 to Aug. 9.