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Read the Constitution Lately?

Just how ignorant are Americans of their Constitution and Bill of Rights?

Not very, according to a poll that found two-thirds of Americans say it is "absolutely essential" to have detailed knowledge of the nation's constitutional rights and freedoms.

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The poll's findings dispel a widespread myth among the intelligentsia that Americans are ignorant of the Constitution and would throw away the Bill of Rights if left to their own devices, says Deborah Wadsworth, president of the group Public Agenda that conducted the poll of 1,520 citizens.

It helps, of course, that TV and movie court dramas have made legal principles come alive in dramatic examples. Every year at least one major Supreme Court decision prompts many Americans to think more deeply how the nine justices interpret the Constitution. The high court's role in the 2000 presidential election, for instance, was a national classroom on the critical role this bedrock document plays in running the country.

Lately, the Justice Department's attempts to restrict civil liberties in capturing or trying terrorist suspects has captured more attention than the campaign against terrorism overseas.

This week is the 215th anniversary of the Constitution, and that provided an opportunity for President Bush to announce a year-long program of workshops, town meetings, and competitions focused on some 100 "milestone" documents, including the Constitution. That will be a useful run-up to the public opening of a National Constitution Center (which commissioned the poll) at Philadelphia's Independence Mall on July 4, 2003.

The poll also found that 3 out of 4 Americans say the Constitution is a great document with some "blind spots." Strongest opinions were expressed over an erosion of privacy and the ability of the rich or powerful to benefit more from the Constitution than others do.

The Constitution proves its worth when Americans study it and then use it to fix each new national problem.


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