Don’t Know Much About the First Amendment

I was not surprised when it was reported that more people are familiar with pop culture than the Constitution. The article states that “only one in four Americans can name more than one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. But more than half can name at least two members of the cartoon family” The Simpsons.1

“(1) Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or (2) abridging the freedom of speech, or (3) of the press; or (4) the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and (5) to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The study was conducted by the new McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum which “found that 22 percent of Americans could name all five Simpson family members, compared with just one in 1,000 people who could name all five First Amendment freedoms. . . . The survey found more people could name the three ‘American Idol’ judges than identify three First Amendment rights. They were also more likely to remember popular advertising slogans.”

We shouldn’t be surprised at any of this since most Americans have never studied the Constitution, and it seems that judges don’t much about the Constitution in general. When’s the last time you heard someone actually quote the First Amendment’s first freedom accurately? It’s always “the separation of church and state,” almost never the actual text.

If people know more about The Simpsons than the Constitution, then why not use the characters of the Simpson household to help students learn the five freedoms of the First Amendment?

Memory is the ability to link what a person knows with what he or she wants to know and retain to be recalled at a later time. Memory expert David M. Roth, writing in 1918, observed that “We can remember only through relation, through association of ideas, because that is the way the normal human mind works, and no one can change it. Practically all mental action and development are based on the Association of Ideas and the use of visual faculty.”2 Since millions of people can identify the five Simpson characters, why not link this knowledge to what they don’t know — the five freedoms of the First Amendment.

Homer Simpson and the Freedom of Religion: Next to Ned Flanders, Homer is the most religious character on the show. While his theories about God and religion are a bit mixed up, he does not doubt God’s existence. The Simpsons even attend church. While Homer might disagree with Flanders on any number of things, including religion, deep down he admires his neighbor. “If everyone here were like Ned Flanders, there’d be no need for heaven,” Homer says. “We’d already be there.”

Marge and Freedom of Speech: In the December 25, 2004 Christmas Special, Marge Simpson, as the Queen of England, delivers an alternative Christmas speech. Freedom of speech has not always been as accessible as it is today. The creators of The Simpsons might have been jailed or worse for mocking aspects of British society.

Bart Simpson and Freedom of the Press: Bart is often shown writing on a blackboard as punishment for something he has written or said. While we might not like it when Bart wrote “The Christmas pageant stinks,” he has a right to express himself without fear of reprisals. Unpopular ideas are protected by the First Amendment, whether spoken or written. Even though we have the freedom to say and write whatever we want, excluding the excesses of slander, it isn’t always the responsible thing to do. Bart’s repeated trips to the blackboard are evidence that being impolitic has its repercussions.

Lisa Simpson and the Right to Assemble: Lisa is the show’s liberal voice. She is a self-described “ovo-lacto-vegentarian” (no eggs, no dairy, no meat) and a fan of National Public Radio. She makes her views known to all who will listen. Through her activism in assembling others to join her cause, Lisa has solved a number of problems in Springfield.

Maggie Simpson and the Redress of Grievances: Homer, tucking Maggie in for the night, says: “The sooner kids talk, the sooner they talk back. I hope you never say a word.” Governments hope the people keep their grievances to themselves, that they are content to be pacified by government programs. When Maggie does express herself, it’s always something important. When Homer shuts the door after saying that he hopes Maggie never says a word,” she pulls the pacifier out of her mouth and says her first word: “Daddy.”

These five constitutional freedoms are the foundation of our nation. They are what separate us from every other nation in the world. If we have to use The Simpsons to teach them, then so be it.

  1. Anna Johnson, “First Amendment? ‘D’oh!’ We’re Clueless,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (March 1, 2006), A10. Also see “Homer Simpson, Yes; First Amendment? ‘Doh,” Editor and Publisher (March 1, 2006). For a different take on the survey, see “Freedom of Speech: More Famous than Bart Simpson” (March 3, 2006). []
  2. David M. Roth, Roth Memory Course: A Simple and Scientific Method of Improving the Memory and Increasing Mental Health (New York: The Sun Dial Press, [1918] 1934), 1. []
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