The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may have occurred more than two years ago, but the American public continues to feel the aftereffects every single day. In a country that now includes a Department of Homeland Security, terror threat alerts, added vigilance by law enforcement, and increased scrutiny of foreign visitors, what level of importance do Americans attach to each of the fundamental rights endowed by our founding fathers?
A November 2003 Gallup Poll*, conducted in conjunction with the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, asked Americans how important some basic American rights are to their own sense of freedom. Results show that nearly all of the rights asked about are either "crucial" or "very important" to a majority of the public.
Democracy and Religion Most Important Rights
Almost uniformly, Americans consider the right to vote crucial or very important to their sense of freedom -- 6 in 10 say it is crucial, while another 37% believe it is very important. This result is somewhat interesting given that only about half of American adults vote in presidential elections.
Freedom of religion is also paramount to the public's sense of personal freedom, with 94% saying it is crucial (55%) or very important (39%). Furthermore, people who say they attend church infrequently are just as likely as regular churchgoers to say religious freedom is crucial to their own sense of freedom.
Due Process, Speaking Freely, and Privacy Protection
Civil libertarians have argued that among the fundamental rights put most at risk by post-Sept. 11 security measures and laws such as the Patriot Act, are the right to due process, the right to privacy, and the right to freedom of speech. Roughly 9 in 10 Americans consider each of the three rights to be crucial or very important to their sense of freedom, with roughly half considering each of them crucial.
Petitions and Protection
The right to petition the government and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures are not quite as likely to be considered essential as some other rights, though the majority of Americans still perceive each to be crucial or very important. Eighty-one percent say the right to petition the government is crucial (44%) or very important (37%) to their sense of freedom, and 79% indicate that freedom from unreasonable searches is either crucial (40%) or very important (39%).
Press Passes and Shotguns
Two rights considered less crucial by the public are freedom of the press and the right to keep and bear arms. Thirty-six percent of Americans consider freedom of the press crucial to their personal freedom, while 37% feel it is very important.
The right to keep and bear arms is the least likely of those asked about to be seen as crucial. Three in 10 Americans consider it crucial to their personal freedom, and 26% think it is very important. About 4 in 10 (42%) consider it somewhat important or not important at all.
With two exceptions, all the rights tested are more likely to be considered crucial by those who describe their political views as liberal than by those who say they are conservative. Liberals are particularly more likely than conservatives to consider the freedom of the press and the right to petition the government to be crucial to their personal freedom.
The two exceptions to this tendency are freedom of religion and the right to bear arms. Conservatives and liberals do not vary significantly in their perceived importance of freedom of religion. However, conservatives (38%) are considerably more likely than liberals (16%) to feel that the right to keep and bear arms is crucial to their freedom.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,004 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov 10-12, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.