Category Archives: Constitution

We Must All Be Civics Teachers – Constitution Day, 2020

Reposted and updated from 2018.

CONSTITUTION DAY CIVICS SURVEY

A few days ago, the Annenberg Public Policy Center released its annual Constitution Day Civics Survey. The results of the survey suggest that the recent upheavals in the United States…racial protests, a pandemic-based health crisis, and increased political polarization…have provided Americans with the excuse to learn more about our form of government.

The survey found that Americans now know more about how our government works than in the last couple of years.

Asked to name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:

  • 73% of Americans named freedom of speech, up from 48% in 2017;
  • 47% named freedom of religion, up from 15% in 2017;
  • 42% named freedom of the press, up from 14% in 2017;
  • 34% named right of assembly, up from 10%;
  • 14% named the right to petition the government, up from 3%;
  • Those who could not name any First Amendment right fell to 19% from 37% in 2017 (total of “can’t name any” and “don’t know”).

It seems obvious that daily newscasts and political pronouncements have helped to educate Americans on the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. The survey did not, however, explore the depth of understanding about the newfound knowledge or delve into such questions as…

  • Do Americans understand that Freedom of Speech does not mean that citizens can bully their way unmasked into businesses that require masks during the pandemic? 
  • Do Americans understand that Freedom of Religion does not mean that a business can discriminate based on the religious beliefs of their customers?


BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT

It’s only slightly comforting that more Americans have learned about the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. On the other hand, it is disturbing (at least to me) that only about half of Americans surveyed can name all three branches of the government. That’s up from about one-third a year ago, but given how important the system of checks and balances is to securing our democracy, it’s not enough. It’s also disturbing that nearly a quarter of our citizens can’t name even one branch of the government!

Furthermore, the survey indicates that a even among those who know the three branches of government, there are a large number of people who are ignorant of the way the branches interact.

For example, almost a third of those surveyed (29%) thought that Congress decided whether the President’s acts were constitutional. Half of the respondents knew that’s the job of the Supreme Court, but that number (51%) is down from 2019. In addition, less than half of those surveyed knew how large a majority in Congress it took to override a Presidential Veto.

It’s clear that many of our citizens still don’t know enough.

WE’RE ALL CIVICS TEACHERS

On September 17, 1787, 233 years ago today, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, signed the Constitution of the United States. It was ratified nine months later and went into effect 18 months after that.

We all still need to be civics teachers!

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2020 Medley #4: Vouchers, choice, and the misuse of tax dollars

School choice fails, Students give up rights,
Tax dollars for discrimination,
Choice and segregation,
Pilot “choice” programs are a trap

“…to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical…” — Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

INDIANA’S VOUCHER PLAN

Indiana’s voucher program began as a plan for low-income students to “escape” their “failing schools” and go to the private schools that wealthier people have always been able to afford. In order to qualify, then-governor Mitch Daniels insisted, a student must have spent at least one year at a public school.

Since its inception in 2011, it has changed into a middle-class entitlement program. Most students who get Indiana “scholarships” are students who have never attended a public school. A third of students who get Indiana “scholarships” are students who do not qualify for free or reduced lunches. Less than one percent of Indiana’s “scholarship” students are “escaping” from a “failing school.”

Since private schools aren’t better than public schools, vouchers don’t improve academic outcomes for students.

The purpose of Indiana’s vouchers has changed. Supporters in Indiana no longer talk about helping poor kids get a better education. Instead, taking DeVos talking points, it’s all about “choice.” Parents will choose the best school for their children.

Finally, Indiana schools that accept vouchers don’t have to be accountable for the tax money they are given. At an education forum last month, my local state senator said that this was intended. They don’t have to be accountable. They get the money with no strings attached. Perhaps they’ll use the money they get for their school to fix the church steeple…or pay for the new football field. It doesn’t matter. The taxpayers shouldn’t care about accountability for tax dollars paid to religious institutions.

See also: James Madison’s 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments

James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” was written in 1785 in opposition to a proposal by Patrick Henry that all Virginians be taxed to support “teachers of the Christian religion.”

To this day, the “Memorial and Remonstrance” remains one of the most powerful arguments against government-supported religion ever penned.

Meanwhile, the Indiana Constitution (Article 1, Section 6), which seems to agree with Presidents Jefferson and Madison, states,

No money shall be drawn from the treasury, for the benefit of any religious or theological institution.

SCHOOL CHOICE

The current administration, supported by Mike Pence as VP and Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, hates public education. In the State of the Union Address on February 4, 2020, the President sneered about “failing government schools.” DeVos, who purchased her job with political contributions, has called public education “a dead end.” Neither the President, the Secretary, nor any of their children, ever attended a public school.

Despite the lack of evidence, the administration chooses privatization over public education.

School Choice Fails Students and Parents

Ultimately, the school choice debate is a distraction from a sobering fact: the U.S. has failed public education by never completely committing to high-quality education for every child in the country regardless of their ZIP code.

There is no mystery to what constitutes a great school, high academic quality, or challenging education, but there is solid proof that almost no one in the U.S. has the political will to choose to guarantee that for every child so that no one has to hope an Invisible Hand might offer a few crumbs here and there.

STUDENTS GIVE UP THEIR RIGHTS WHEN THEY LEAVE THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS

The Danger Private School Voucher Programs Pose to Civil Rights

When students participate in a voucher program, the rights that they have in public school do not automatically transfer with them to their private school. Private schools may expel or deny admission to certain students without repercussion and with limited recourse for the aggrieved student. In light of Secretary DeVos’ push to create a federal voucher program, it is crucial that parents and policymakers alike understand the ways that private schools can discriminate against students, even while accepting public funding. Parents want the best education possible for their children, and voucher programs may seem like a path to a better education for children whose families have limited options. However, parents deserve clear and complete information about the risks of using voucher programs, including the loss of procedural safeguards available to students in public schools.

SHOULD TAX DOLLARS BE USED TO DISCRIMINATE?

Anti-LGBT Florida schools getting school vouchers

Suzanne Eckes, professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Indiana University asks, “Hey citizens of the state of Florida … Do you want your taxpayer money used in this way?”

Do the citizens of Florida want private schools that receive state dollars to be able to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation? Do they want private schools to be able to refuse service to certain groups of people? The article authors don’t come out and say it, but the answer is, apparently, “yes.”

All of the schools the Sentinel found with anti-gay policies were Christian, with the largest group — about 45 percent — Baptist, not surprising given that the Southern Baptist Convention says Christians must “oppose” homosexuality.

Nearly 40 percent of the schools were non-denominational and a smattering were affiliated with Assemblies of God, Catholic, Lutheran, Nazarene, Pentecostal and Presbyterian Church in America denominations, among others.

There could be more campuses with discriminatory policies, as some private schools that take the scholarships do not publicly post their rules, and a small number don’t have websites.

The schools with these anti-gay rules are found across Central Florida, in suburban DeLand (Stetson Baptist Christian School), near downtown Orlando (Victory Christian Academy) and in historic Mount Dora (Mount Dora Christian Academy). They are in Florida’s rural communities from Okeechobee to the Panhandle and its cities from Miami to St. Petersburg to Tallahassee.

The schools see the proposed legislation as an unconstitutional attack on their religious rights, and many likely wouldn’t change their policies, even if the scholarship law gets amended.

Subsidizing Bigotry

Columnist Sheila Kennedy points out the necessity of public schools.

As the country’s diversity and tribalism have grown, America’s public schools have become more necessary than ever. The public school is one of the last “street corners” where children of different backgrounds and beliefs come together to learn–ideally–not just “reading, writing and arithmetic” but the history and philosophy of the country they share.

Today’s Americans read different books and magazines, visit different websites, listen to different music, watch different television programs, and occupy different social media bubbles. In most communities, we’ve lost a shared daily newspaper. The experiences we do share continue to diminish.

Given this fragmentation, the assaults on public education are assaults on a shared America.

DESPITE BROWN v. BOARD, SEGREGATION CONTINUES UNDER “CHOICE”

Report: Where Parents Have More Choice, Schools Appear To Become More Segregated

Another not-so-hidden “feature” of school “choice” is economic and racial segregation.

…(families) are making judgments about school quality … but they’re basing those judgments often on poor data, on average test scores at a school, which is not a good indicator of school quality. And sometimes all kinds of biases can get in the way too. It looks like, from other research, that white advantaged parents often make decisions based on the number of other white advantaged parents at a school, not based on any real research about school safety or school quality or these kinds of important indicators.

DON’T GET FOOLED LIKE INDIANA

Don’t Be Fooled! Voucher ‘Pilot’ Programs Are A Trap

Legislators use “pilot” programs as ways of getting their pet projects started. Once a program is funded — even as a “pilot” — funding is easier to continue. Changes to the “pilot” program can come later, as in the all-inclusive changes to the Indiana voucher plan. It might begin as a restrictive plan, for certain students “in need.” Given the nature of political donations, however, it will undoubtedly expand…just as Indiana’s plan has expanded.

Last week a South Carolina Senate Education Subcommittee debated SB 556, which would create a new private school voucher program. Before the hearing, Americans United sent a letter to the committee telling its members to reject the bill because vouchers have been shown to harm students’ academic achievement, fail students with disabilities and violate religious freedom.

Sensing that a statewide voucher would be unpopular, some senators offered to make the program a temporary “pilot” or to limit its eligibility to a “narrow” population of students. Hopefully, South Carolina’s legislators won’t buy this false compromise.

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The Bill of Rights, December 15, 1791

(Note: This is an updated version of an earlier post on the Bill of Rights)

The United States Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, was ratified on this date, December 15, in 1791.

THE FIRST AMENDMENT: CURRENT CIVIC KNOWLEDGE

The First Amendment within the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech, religion, a free press, assembly, and petition.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances

Today, many Americans are unfamiliar with the details of the First Amendment. The recent State of the First Amendment Survey from the Freedom Forum Institute revealed that Americans’ knowledge of the First Amendment is lacking.

71 percent of Americans could name at least one of the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment and nearly two-thirds of those surveyed knew that freedom of speech is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment (64%), but far fewer could identify any of the other First Amendment rights: 29% identified freedom of religion; 22% named freedom of the press; 12% named freedom of assembly, and only 4% said the right to petition the government was a First Amendment freedom.

In addition, 16 percent of those who took the recent survey thought that the First Amendment protected Americans’ right to bear arms, instead of the Second Amendment.

The apparent ignorance of Americans about their own government, while slightly improved from previous years, is disheartening.

THE FIRST AMENDMENT: RELIGION

As a child, I listened to my grandfather tell stories about growing up in Dvinsk, Russia (now Daugavpils, Latvia). One story which stands out in my memory was about his hiding in their home during one of the frequent pogroms against the Jewish communities. He emerged when it was over only to be told that his grandfather had been killed by the Tzar’s cossacks.

That story has given me a strong feeling of gratitude to the American Founders for the First Amendment. Because of its scope, the First Amendment is, to me, the full expression of the intent of America. It acknowledges the freedom of thought which is, as Jefferson (or possibly another member of the Committee of the Five) put it, the unalienable right of every citizen.

The guarantee of religious freedom is that part of the first amendment which comes to mind when I think about my grandfather’s story, and for that we have Jefferson (The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom) and Madison (Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments) to thank.

The Virginia Statute was the first time an English speaking country or colony, in this case, the Colony of Virginia, DE-ESTABLISHED the state-sponsored church and gave full religious freedom to people of both all religious faiths and no religious faith. Because of Jefferson’s leadership in this context, when my grandfather became a citizen in the early part of the 20th century, he was not taxed to pay for a state-sponsored religion, and he was given the same rights of citizenship as everyone else.

THE FIRST AMENDMENT: SPEECH

Eleanor Roosevelt said,

…freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility.

The First Amendment provides Americans with great freedom…which we tend to take for granted.

We have the freedom to misunderstand, ignore, or be ignorant of, the responsibilities of citizenship. Freedom of Speech is one area where many people do not seem to understand the relationship between freedom and responsibility.

Simply put, Americans’ right to self-expression is extensive, but there are limits. You can say what you want unless you’re putting others in danger (e.g. shouting “fire” in a crowded theater), or lying about someone or group of someones (e.g. libel laws). For a comprehensive discussion of limits to free speech, see United States free speech exceptions.

Consequences

Finally, within the limits discussed above, we can say what we want, but with that freedom-with-responsibility comes consequences.

This concept is difficult for some Americans to understand. If you call your boss a vulgar name, you won’t be arrested for your speech, but chances are you will be looking for another job. If you make a controversial statement, you will likely be criticized.

Criticism of your speech is not an abridgment of your right to say it. Criticism of a political candidate’s speech is not an abridgment of his or her right to say things. When a controversial speaker is denied a platform by a University or civic group, the speaker’s Freedom of Speech is not abridged. The speaker is free to speak to other groups or write and publish his ideas.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans expressed the mistaken belief that

…social media companies violate users’ First Amendment rights when they ban users based on objectionable content they post.

Private companies, like social media groups, can restrict one’s speech. The First Amendment guarantee of free speech protects citizens from government censorship.

The First Amendment protects individuals from government censorship. Social media platforms are private companies, and can censor what people post on their websites as they see fit.

There are way too many Americans who believe that criticism of someone’s opinions is akin to restricting their freedom of speech. It’s just not so.

THERE ARE TEN AMENDMENTS…

…in the Bill of Rights. I’ve discussed the First Amendment. The Second Amendment is the source of quite a bit of political debate. My answer to the debate on the Second Amendment is simple…if the Supreme Court has allowed the government to define limits to the rights enumerated in the First Amendment, we should be able to define limits to the Second Amendment as well. The political arguments, then, are reduced to the extent of those limits (i.e. assault weapons, bump stocks, high-capacity magazines, etc.).

The other amendments are even less known, less understood, and less discussed. They include, for example, the right to a

…fair, speedy and public trial, an impartial jury, a notice of the accusation, and the confrontation of witnesses. The Seventh Amendment protects the right to a trial by jury in civil court cases.

Other amendments guarantee equal protection under the law and due process, protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, protection against excessive bail, and protection against self-incrimination.

How much do our children learn about the Constitution and the Amendments?

CIVIC EDUCATION

Understanding how our government works should be an essential part of the education of American citizens. Unfortunately, the obsession with standardized tests in U.S. schools has pushed out content areas including Social Studies and Civics.

Jefferson wrote,

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be…

In order to maintain our freedom, it’s the responsibility of every citizen to understand the basis of, and the processes involved, in running our nation. It’s our responsibility as a society to give every citizen the opportunity to learn how the government works, our rights under the law, and our responsibilities as citizens. When we neglect the Civics Education of our children, we fail in our duty to raise up the next generation of citizens.

How’s your civics knowledge? Take the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Civics Practice Test.

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We’re All Civics Teachers – Constitution Day, 2018

Reposted and updated from 2017.

WE’RE ALL CIVICS TEACHERS

A middle school social studies teacher once commented to me that he had trouble teaching his curriculum because so many of the students in his classroom were reading “below grade level.” My response was, “We’re all reading teachers.”

A few days ago, the Annenberg Public Policy Center released its annual Constitution Day Civics Survey. The results of the survey suggest that we’re all civics teachers, as well – or we ought to be.

The survey found that Americans don’t know enough about how our government works. Some highlights:

  • A quarter (27 percent) incorrectly said the Constitution allows the president to ignore a Supreme Court ruling if the president believes the ruling is wrong;
  • A plurality (41 percent) incorrectly said that both the House and Senate must approve before a nominee becomes a justice on the Supreme Court (30 percent correctly know that the Senate alone confirms);
  • Only a third of Americans (32 percent) can name all three branches of government.

 

BRANCHES OF GOVERNMENT

It’s only slightly comforting that Americans probably know that we have the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights even though they might now know which Amendment they’re in. But it is very disturbing (at least to me) that only about one-third of Americans surveyed can name all three branches of the government.

Can you?

Can you name the President Pro Tempore of the Senate? Did you know that he is third in line for the presidency after the Vice President and the Speaker of the House? (It’s Orrin Hatch. Are you surprised that it isn’t Mitch McConnell?)

How many members of the House of Representatives are there? How was that number arrived at? What is the “System of checks and balances?” How many members are there of the Supreme Court? Why did the founders decide that the President should be chosen by Electors instead of the people themselves?

THE AMENDMENTS

(The following information is from the 2017 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey)

While 37% of those surveyed couldn’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, most could name at least one. Freedom of Speech was the answer the largest group of people gave (48%), but, as the chart below illustrates, the other rights guaranteed are unrecognized at an abysmal level.

Now, my guess is that most Americans know we have freedom of religion and a free press, but just don’t know that it’s the First Amendment which guarantees those freedoms. Still, it’s distressing that only 1 in 7 Americans know that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press, especially now, considering the way the press is being treated by the current administration.

The first ten amendments to the Constitution comprise the Bill of Rights. They were written (by James Madison, with edits from various sources) to appease the Anti-Federalists who were holding up the ratification of the Constitution. They were written to give the people specific rights not listed in the body of the Constitution. It’s concerning that Americans are ignorant of their content.

THE RIGHT TO BE IGNORANT

In his comments about the Annenberg Survey, blogger Ed Brayton asked

…can a democracy really function effectively when the voters are this ignorant about such basic matters of government?

WE’RE ALL CIVICS TEACHERS

On September 17, 1787, 231 years ago today, delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, signed the Constitution of the United States. It was ratified nine months later and went into effect 18 months after that.

The challenge: Teach it. We all need to be civics teachers!

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The NFL, The Bill of Rights, and Limits to Freedom

TAKE A KNEE

The owners of NFL football teams have agreed to require players to either stand during the singing of the national anthem, or stay in the clubhouse. Teams will face fines for any infractions of the new rule. Kudos to Jets owner, Christopher Johnson, who announced that he would pay his team’s fine if any players chose to kneel rather than stand.

Is this a free speech issue? Possibly…but it’s under debate because freedom of speech is not absolute in the United States. We have the First Amendment which guarantees free speech (among other things), but there are restrictions that most reasonable people would agree with. Furthermore, with free speech comes responsibility and consequences. You can’t just say anything you want without accepting the consequences of your words. Colin Kaepernick understands and (mostly) accepts that his gesture of protest against racism and police violence in the United States has consequences (though he is fighting some of the consequences). In other words, there are limits to the First Amendment.

FIRST AMENDMENT AND RESTRICTIONS

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Freedom of Speech and Press: Exceptions to the First Amendment

…an overview of the major exceptions to the First Amendment—of the ways that the Supreme Court has interpreted the guarantee of freedom of speech and press to provide no protection or only limited protection for some types of speech. For example, the Court has decided that the First Amendment provides no protection for obscenity, child pornography, or speech that constitutes what has become widely known as “fighting words.” The Court has also decided that the First Amendment provides less than full protection to commercial speech, defamation (libel and slander), speech that may be harmful to children, speech broadcast on radio and television (as opposed to speech transmitted via cable or the Internet), and public employees’ speech.

How much can your employer restrict your free speech? The answer, in a nutshell, is “a lot” if you’re a government employee…”not as much” if you’re not.

Can The NFL Really Fire Players For Kneeling During The National Anthem?

Employee freedom of speech depends on many different laws…

NFL teams are probably private actors, which would mean players do not have constitutional free speech rights in this situation; however, there are some bona fide arguments to the contrary…

As an individual, when you’re not at work, you have the full rights to free speech (with restrictions and consequences as noted above). As an employee, however, when you are essentially representing your employer, there are more restrictions and that’s where the complications come into play.

On the other hand, those opposed to the protests don’t seem to grasp the irony of heaping scorn upon individuals who are exercising the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. President Trump, who rarely lets pass an opportunity to whip up nationalist fervor, said this about the NFL players who exercise their First Amendment rights by kneeling during the national anthem…

You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe they shouldn’t be in the country…

To give him the benefit of the doubt, the President apparently doesn’t understand the First Amendment. American citizens have the right to do or say things which are offensive (again, with certain restrictions). It’s fine if he wants to disagree, but that doesn’t mean that they should be fired, deported, or exiled.

DO STUDENTS HAVE FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS?

The protests have moved from the world of professional sports to high schools and colleges. Students around the country are exercising their first amendment rights and kneeling in support of the professional athletes and in protest against the depth of racism in America.

Is this legal? Can high school and college students do the same thing or do they “leave their rights at the schoolhouse door?”

AURORA, Colo. — Vicqari Horton dropped a knee to the grass. The varsity choir piped out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And in the bleachers at a sun-soaked football stadium here on Saturday, parents clenched their teeth in anger or raised their fists in support.

“You can’t continue to slap people in the face and not expect them to stand up,” said Mr. Horton, a junior tight end at Aurora Central High School who is black and began kneeling during the national anthem at games in mid-September. “When Kaepernick kneeled, he gave us an outlet. He gave us something to do.”

Texas high school football players thrown off team for kneeling during anthem

Two Texas high school football players were thrown off their team literally moments after kneeling in protest during the national anthem before a game on Friday.

The two teens from Victory and Praise Christian Academy in Crosby, Texas planned the protest in advance — and even told their coach — who immediately asked his players to take off their uniforms and booted them off the team…

LIMITS TO FREEDOM

Freedom of Speech is not the only First Amendment right given limits by the country’s courts. Here are two links to articles dealing with limitations of other First Amendment freedoms…

And the First Amendment is not the only one with limits…

Limits to the Fourth Amendment

Limits to the Eighth Amendment

Many of those who are arguing that the First Amendment rights of Kaepernick and others be restricted while they are in their football uniform are the same ones who claim the Second Amendment is not subject to any restrictions.

The limits of the Second Amendment

In short, every right has its limits. And that’s exactly what the Supreme Court suggested on Monday, when it declined to hear an appeal of a suit against a law in Highland Park, Illinois, that banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in the town. Not only did the court hand gun rights advocates a loss, the vote was 7-2, including Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both of whom had voted in 2008 to create an individual right to own guns for the first time in American history.

What everybody needs to know about our Constitution and gun control

Even conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia acknowledged this in his opinion to Heller. He wrote that the Second Amendment is “not unlimited” and is “not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

Does it make sense to adopt reasonable limits to free speech, but not to gun ownership? Can you pick and choose which amendments should be restricted and which ones shouldn’t?

[Note: As I was writing this another school shooting was being reported…in Noblesville, IN]

Are those people who are calling for NFL players to “stand up for the national anthem or leave the country,” willing to fight for similar restrictions to gun ownership?

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