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Wednesday, March 01, 2006 

First Amendment Ignorance

Only one in four Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. I wish I could say that I'm shocked, but I'm not. There is an appalling lack of civics education in this country. A rational person would think that our schools would spend time teaching the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and basic Constitutional Law. It just doesn't happen. When it does happen, it's usually glossed over fairly quickly. The first real exposure to the Constitution that I got was in my American History course in high school (Catholic, not public high school by the way). My teacher made us learn the first ten Amendments, the basic ideas covered in each of the Articles of the Constitution, and the names of all nine Supreme Court Justices (another factoid lost on most people).

I've recently realized that a sizable chunk of my known readership is made up of non-lawyer/law school folks. I've also realized that I can tend to get off in Steve Land when writing about Court cases. I throw around terms like federalism, concurring opinion, and solicitor general without explaining them. I'm going to make an effort to either explain any legal terms or at least link to an explanation. I hope I can do my part to inform more people about these concepts.

I have to agree that you are often overly naive on these issues. Even I, as someone who knows voting patterns of all the justices, has taken poli sci, and reads opinions for fun, was baffled by your mention of the "Hobbs Test." If you assume most people (outside of law school) should know that, think again.

Talking with people in my department, many have little to no idea how the S. Court functions or how many justices sit on it. It simply doesn't matter to them or affect them. I argued earlier this year with some folks who thought it took 3/4 of the court to overturn precedents. I would say less than 5% of the population can name one case other than Roe v. Wade. (They won't even think of Bush v. Gore.)

(And it works the other way - Expecting the justices to know of Anna Nicole Smith is a bit far reaching. I barely know who she is.)

Last summer, a bunch of us in the physics dept went out and asked about 15 or 20 "lay" persons what the age of the universe is. This number is ubiquitious in physics, but I claimed -- to others' dismay -- that no one else knows it. Of course, it ended up that no one knew. (Try writing down a hard number, then checking it against the actual number.)

It all comes down to spending too long in academia, surrounded by people in your discipline. When TA'ing, I often accidentally drop terms during class, then realize no one has any idea what they are. Examples include assuming everyone knows an "amp" is a unit of "electrical current," or the difference between current and voltage, or power and energy, etc.

The Outside is scary. The Others won't understand you. Just try to leave the law building as little as possible. That's my strategy with physics (more necessity than desire though) -- yesterday I went 15 hours. It felt great. I think.


So I wikipedia'd Anna Nicole Smith. In retrospect, I always knew she had ties to the softcore pornography industry, I just thought that there would be some substance to her career which would have resulted in her landing photoshoots. Apparently it was the other way around. And what's up with all these reality TV shows?!

The internet search wasn't a complete loss, at least. It's not everyday that I run across the word nonagenerian. And the Google image search was... insightful.

It's very easy to get stuck in the technical jargon of one's chosen field. I can mention "strict scrutiny" or "rationality review" at school and everyone knows what I'm talking about. Explaining those concepts to someone who doesn't know about standards of review is easily a 10 minute speech on my part.

"Expecting the justices to know of Anna Nicole Smith is a bit far reaching. I barely know who she is."
Maybe it has to do with the fact that I was a huge Howard Stern fan in the late 90s, but I can't fathom someone not knowing her. I have $20 that says Justice Thomas knows her (and I can say that as a Thomas fan).

"It all comes down to spending too long in academia, surrounded by people in your discipline."
Could the Ivory Tower criticisms of academia be true? Hell, you and I have been in higher education for 4.5 and 5.5 years respectively, and look at the damage already done to us.

"I just thought that there would be some substance to her career which would have resulted in her landing photoshoots."
Are you insinuating that softcore porn is not a career with substance?

Fortunately, there are those of us who read quite a bit, for pleasure, and understand or can fugure out what you mean. I, for one, have never lost my enjoyment at learning new things. I'm grateful to McAdams for having a link to this site. More info. I love it! As for the Constitution, many haven't read it in years. I recently picked up The Heritage Guide to the Constitution. Interesting reading.

Well, it's a rough balance that I have to maintain on here. While I did say that I often get too deep with technical jargon, there are many times that I think "am I explaining this clearly?" while writing posts.

Then it becomes an issue of how much explanation is too much. Am I going to fill a post with so many definitions and explanations that it reads horribly? I have a certain style that I like to write in, and I hate sacrificing that by putting fifty definitions in the middle of a paragraph.

It's likely that I'm going to link to definitions/explanations. That way the option is there if a reader wants more info.

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About me

  • I'm Steve
  • From Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States
  • "There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences." P.J. O'Rourke
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