January 21, 2003

Poll Finds Americans Value Civil Liberties

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After more than a year of the war on terrorism, a survey conducted by the Cornell Dept. of Communications in late 2002 found that a majority of Americans have expressed a resurgence of disapproval for U.S. policies that infringe upon civil liberties.

With the responses of 800 randomly selected Americans to a 30 minute telephone survey, Cornell professors determined that 60 percent of Americans are opposed to government policies such as phone tapping and e-mail monitoring, policies that the Oct. 2001 Patriot Act allowed law enforcement officials to enact.

Cornell students in Communications 282 Industry Research Methods worked with head researcher and organizer of the survey, Prof. Dietram Scheufele, communications, to develop the questions and concepts for the civil liberties survey, their first nationwide research project.

The issue of civil liberties is being brought to the fore after a year’s support for laws that were passed on behalf of homeland security.

According to Farid Ben Amor ’05, president of the Cornell Civil Liberties Union (CCLU), the change in Americans’ support for laws such as the Patriot Act “may not necessarily be because their views have changed, but because they have noticed the adverse effects of these security bills that push excessive disclosure.”

Despite Americans’ criticism of civil rights infringements, many also support the racial profiling and indefinite detainment of suspected terrorists. Sixty percent of Americans are in favor of maintaining civil liberties; yet 68.0 percent and 57.6 percent, respectively, support racial profiling and indefinite detainment–two breaches of civil liberties.

“People are directly concerned about their own civil rights, but they are more willing to accept restrictions on civil liberties of what are often called suspected terrorists. The bottom line is a very libertarian one: yes, we see the need for restrictive policies, but we don’t like them when they apply to us directly,” Scheufele said.

“I am thrilled that this study further goes to show that the average American enjoys his constitutionally protected freedoms and is reluctant to lose them,” said Ben Amor, who assisted with the project.

Scheufele also pointed to a marked difference between Democrats and Republicans in the survey responses. He explained that because President Bush is a “very polarized President,” so too is the support for the reforms of his administration.

For instance, the survey statement, “I would support random checks of people who fit the descriptions of suspected terrorists,” produced the previously cited 68% of agreement. However, this is an averaged percentage; 61.1% of Democrats agreed with the question while the percentage of approving Republicans was 81.5%. Such partisan differences are reflected in most of the responses to the survey.

In general, “Republicans are very much willing to sacrifice civil liberties the sake of the war,” Scheufele said.

Another dichotomy in the survey results was the effect of television on the responses of the participants. People who watch a lot of television were more likely to support restrictive policies.

“There is something about the imagery [of television] that evokes the rally ’round the flag phenomenon and compels people to forego civil liberties for a national cause,” remarked Scheufele.

Archived article by Liz Goulding