NEW ORLEANS, FEB. 14 -- Americans are woefully ill-informed about the content and meaning of the Constitution, according to a national survey released today.

The poll of 1,004 Americans found that only a bare majority knew the purpose of the 200-year-old document was to create a federal government and define its powers; that 59 percent were unaware that the Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments to the Constitution; and that nearly half believed the Constitution contains the Marxist declaration, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

The survey, conducted by the Hearst Corp. to mark the Constitution's bicentennial, also found that nearly half those polled incorrectly believed that the president can suspend constitutional protections in time of war or national emergency, that 60 percent thought the president, acting alone, can appoint a justice to the Supreme Court, and that 64 percent believed the framers established English as the national language.

At the same time, 61 percent favored convening a constitutional convention this year to consider amendments on such issues as school prayer, abortion and freedom of the press.

Nearly three-quarters supported an amendment guaranteeing citizens the right to adequate health care, and seven in 10 favored an amendment requiring that Supreme Court justices be reappointed after serving for a term of years.

Those who knew the most about the Constitution were the least likely to support changing it, the poll found. "When the results of this survey arrived on my desk, they confirmed what I had already suspected," Hearst Corp. President Frank A. Bennack Jr. said at the midyear meeting of the American Bar Association here. "Americans today have a confused understanding of the Constitution's basic tenets and provisions."

Those responding were most knowledgeable about criminal justice issues, with 92 percent aware that criminal defendants must be provided with a lawyer if they cannot afford one, and 83 percent aware that they have a right to a jury trial.

However, they were confused about a number of other constitutional rights. Three-quarters believed the Constitution guarantees a right to a free public education through high school, half said it gives every citizen the right to own a handgun and only 44 percent knew the Constitution permits citizens to preach revolution.

On landmark Supreme Court cases, barely half were aware that Brown v. Board of Education involved school segregation, 45 percent knew that Miranda dealt with the rights of criminal suspects, and fewer than one-third identified Roe v. Wade as an abortion-rights case.

Six in 10 of those responding said correctly that the Supreme Court is the final authority on constitutional change. And half knew that a Supreme Court decision can be overruled. However, 85 percent wrongly said any important case can be appealed to the high court from state courts, and only 43 percent correctly identified William H. Rehnquist as chief justice.