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Liberty vs. Security: Public Mixed on Patriot Act

Liberty vs. Security: Public Mixed on Patriot Act

by Darren K. Carlson

The recent bombings in London served as a tragic reminder that the war on terrorism is ongoing. It's a war fought with public policy changes as well as machine guns and mortar. In the United States, the Patriot Act is the legal backbone of the country's anti-terrorism measures. Controversy has swirled around the act since its inception in late 2001. Government officials argue the law is vital for obtaining information about U.S. residents who are suspected of having terrorist ties, but civil libertarians argue the act is turning America into a police state.

Recent Gallup polling on the Patriot Act* allows a look beyond the rhetoric of government officials and civil libertarians, to explore the opinions of all Americans. Results show self-reported awareness of the act is high, while public opinion about the act's effect on Americans' civil liberties is mixed.

Majority Familiar With Act

Gallup asked respondents how familiar they are with the Patriot Act. A majority of Americans -- 64% -- say they are either "very" or "somewhat" familiar with the law, although just 12% claim to be very familiar. A quarter of Americans (25%) say they are "not too familiar" with the law, and 11% are "not at all familiar."

Americans with more education are more likely to be familiar with the law. Twenty percent of those with a postgraduate education say they are very familiar with the law, compared with only 6% of those with a high school education or less.

Gallup asked about familiarity with the Patriot Act using slightly different question wording in 2003 and 2004. Those results suggest the public has become slightly more familiar with the Patriot Act in the last two years.

Does the Law Go Too Far?

A follow-up question asked respondents whether they think the Patriot Act goes too far, is about right, or doesn't go far enough in restricting people's civil liberties in order to investigate suspected terrorism. The plurality of Americans, 41%, say the law is about right in terms of protecting civil liberties. More Americans, however, believe it goes too far (30%) than believe it does not go far enough (21%).

Partisanship is a major factor when it comes to public opinion about the Patriot Act. More than a third (37%) of Democrats think it goes too far in restricting civil liberties, as do 4 in 10 political independents (40%) -- but only 12% of Republicans think the Patriot Act goes too far. Most Republicans, 61%, believe the Patriot Act is "about right" in trading off protection from terrorism with protection of civil liberties.

It appears familiarity might breed some contempt when it comes to the Patriot Act. Among Americans who say they are very familiar with the law, 45% believe it goes too far in restricting civil liberties, while a third (33%) of those who are somewhat familiar think so. Just 20% of those who are not familiar with the law think it goes too far.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,009 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 24-26, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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