DETROIT Despite the fear of future terrorist attacks, a majority of Americans are unwilling to give up civil liberties in exchange for national security, according to a Michigan State University study.
Nearly 55% of 1,488 people surveyed nationwide said they don't want to give up constitutional rights in the government's fight against terrorism. Eighty-four percent said they were still at least "somewhat concerned" about future terrorist attacks on the United States.
"We have to understand that 45 percent is still a substantial number of people who are willing to give up some of their current civil liberties," said Michigan State political science professor Brian Silver, who co-authored the study released yesterday.
The telephone survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, was conducted from Nov. 14 through Jan. 15 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7 percentage points.
Ninety-two percent of survey participants said they opposed government investigation of nonviolent protesters, 82% opposed government use of racial profiling, 77% opposed warrantless searches of suspected terrorists and 66% opposed government monitoring of telephone and e-mail conversations.
"What is really surprising is that trust in local law enforcement and federal government has an overwhelming effect on what people are willing to give up in order to combat terrorism," said study co-author Darren Davis, also a Michigan State political science professor.
Davis and Silver both said lacking trust in local authorities is likely the reason that race played a role in respondents' willingness to relinquish civil liberties.
The survey found that blacks were the most unwilling to trade civil liberties for increased securities, followed by Hispanics and Caucasians.
"Racial groups that have had a history of negative experiences with local police are less willing to give up the rights for which they've been fighting to those often perceived as denying those rights," Silver said.
Davis said trust in the government may have little to do with the war on terrorism and more to do with an economic downturn or a perceived injustice.
American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan spokeswoman Wendy Wagenheim said whatever the reasoning, Americans should guard their rights.
"If all of our civil liberties would have been wiped out on September 10th, the horrible events of September 11th would have happened anyway," Wagenheim said. "I think people have had a chance to sit back and realize 'I can be safe and have freedom. I don't have to give up one for the other.' "
Survey participants did indicate a willingness to expand government power on some issues: 71% said it should be a crime to belong to a terrorist organization and 54% said they supported the idea of a national identification card.
Wagenheim expressed concern about the fact that 60% of those surveyed said school teachers shouldn't be allowed to criticize U.S. anti-terrorism policies in class.
"There's some huge censorship issues there," Wagenheim said. "The fact that it's OK for us to speak out against the government is what free speech is all about. It keeps things in check. Without it, we wouldn't have democracy.
"It sounds kind of trite, but it's the truth."
Davis said respondents who said they'd curb teachers' speech were probably thinking less about liberties and more about the patriotism that followed the terrorist attacks.
"When there's an outpouring of patriotism, there's less willingness to support dissent in any form," Davis said.