By John Whitehead
Much has transpired since the United States Constitution was ratified and the 462 words that make up the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the Constitution—became an integral part of America’s legal and political fabric. Our nation has made great strides in protecting the rights of minorities, as well as advancing the cause of freedom worldwide. Unfortunately, it has also perpetrated vast injustices and facilitated countless violations of human rights. The U.S. Supreme Court has played a pivotal role in shaping these rights, sometimes affirming and at other times limiting the freedoms set out in the Bill of Rights. Yet the Court does not bear sole responsibility for the current state of our freedoms. And although our civil liberties are in a state of disrepair, due in large part to a government that increasingly justifies encroachments on our rights as necessary in its so-called war on terror, the blame cannot entirely be placed at the feet of government leaders.
“We the people” are the first and best guardians of our rights. We are the Constitution’s first line of defense. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “The people of every country are the only safe guardians of their own rights.”
While the war for independence ended more than 200 years ago, the struggle to safeguard our freedoms will never be over. When we lose sight of that truth, when we become too comfortable and complacent with the status quo, is when we are most vulnerable to attack. And because of our apathy and ignorance of the government’s explosive growth and expansive powers, we have no one to blame but ourselves. As a sign in President Harry S. Truman’s office proclaimed, “The buck stops here.”
Surveys reveal that Americans are inexcusably illiterate about the Bill of Rights. Most Americans cannot name the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. And about half of those surveyed believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. Fault for this lack of constitutional savvy lies in part with our educational system. When high school seniors were tested several years ago, just one in four could name two ways the American political system prevents the exercise of “absolute arbitrary power” on the part of the government. Among the possible answers on a multiple choice test were such basics as the Bill of Rights, an independent judiciary, civilian control of the military and the right to vote. Not one in ten seniors could identify two ways that democracy benefits from the active participation of its citizens. And in a 1998 poll conducted by the National Constitution Center, not one in 50 American teenagers could identify James Madison as the father of the U.S. Constitution. Less than half could name the three branches of the federal government. This alarming illiteracy of our very own liberties poses one of the greatest threats to freedom today. How can you defend your rights when you aren’t even aware what they are?
Educators do not fare much better in understanding and implementing the Constitution in the classroom. A study conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut found that while educators seem to support First Amendment rights in principle, they are reluctant to apply such rights in the schools. They support severe restrictions on freedom by forbidding student distribution of political and religious materials, thus endorsing a hypocritical double standard where belief and action collide. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the zero tolerance policies that expel children from school for innocent acts and speech without a hearing and regardless of circumstances. This obviously creates confusion for students when it comes time to learn about the Bill of Rights.
Government leaders and politicians are also ill-informed. Although they take an oath to uphold, support and defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and “domestic,” their lack of education about our fundamental rights often causes them to be enemies of the Bill of Rights. Anyone taking public office should have a working knowledge of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and should be held accountable for upholding their precepts. One way to ensure this would be to require government leaders to take a course on the Constitution and pass a thorough examination before being allowed to take office.
Sadly, those precious 462 words of freedom that make up the Bill of Rights are in danger of being swallowed up in the mire of ignorance, misunderstanding and apathy that seems to hold our nation captive. Only an active involvement from an informed citizenry can maintain our democratic form of government. But before we can take action, we must be educated on our basic freedoms.
The following is a primer on the Bill of Rights, as well as the all-important Writ of Habeas Corpus. Study it. Use it. And above all, cherish it.