Linda Greenhouse on the Importance of Civic Education after Kentucky v. King

May 19th, 2011

In her Opinionater column, Linda Greenhouse blasts the Court’s opinion in Kentucky v. King. In particular, she laments the Court’s holding that a failure of the defendants to understand their constitutional rights led to the extension of the exigent circumstance exception.

According to Justice Alito, “Whether the person who knocks on the door and requests the opportunity to speak is a police officer or a private citizen, the occupant has no obligation to open the door or to speak.” In other words, the occupants of the apartment not only had a right to tell the police to go away, they almost had a constitutional obligation to do so, because “occupants who choose not to stand on their constitutional rights but instead elect to attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame for the warrantless exigent-circumstances search that may ensue.”

“Only themselves to blame.” But wait, there’s more. It turns out that the occupants of this apartment were not only woefully unsophisticated about the Fourth Amendment, they were also ingrates: “Citizens who are startled by an unexpected knock on the door or by the sight of unknown persons in plain clothes on their doorstep may be relieved to learn that these persons are police officers. Others may appreciate the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether to answer the door to the police.”

An opportunity to ask the officers to “hold it right there while I consult my attorney?” Let’s get real.

Greenhouse focuses on an important point I have made several time–people today are woefully uneducated about constitutional liberties. How can any court reasonably expect them to know what their rights even are!

But let’s look on the bright side. The Supreme Court tells us that if we don’t know our constitutional rights, we have only ourselves to blame. Knowledge of the Constitution, along with other basic elements of civics, is at pathetically low levels: only a quarter of high school seniors — people old enough to vote, or nearly so — demonstrated proficiency in a recent national survey of students’ knowledge of how government works.

So perhaps this week’s decision could be harnessed to provide the motivation evidently missing from the classroom. Students could be instructed that if the police come pounding on their door, and they don’t know enough to stand on their Fourth Amendment rights, they have only themselves to blame.

Indeed. The mission of the Harlan Institute is clear.