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Americans Still Say Liberties Should Trump Anti-Terrorism

Americans Still Say Liberties Should Trump Anti-Terrorism

Story Highlights

  • 65% say anti-terror efforts should not violate liberties
  • 30% prioritize anti-terrorism over protecting liberties
  • 41% of Americans say government efforts violate their liberties

PRINCETON, N.J. -- The federal government's recent actions to limit the scope of what it can do to prevent terrorism are consistent with Americans' preference to prioritize civil liberties over anti-terrorism efforts when the two come into conflict. Sixty-five percent of Americans say the government should take steps to prevent terrorism but not violate civil liberties, while 30% think any steps to prevent terrorism are justified, even if they violate liberties. In the first few months after 9/11, Americans were more divided on the issue.

Trend: Americans' Views of Tradeoffs Between Anti-Terrorism Efforts and Respecting Civil Liberties

The latest results are based on a June 2-7 Gallup poll, conducted after Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed into law the USA Freedom Act, designed to replace the expiring and controversial Patriot Act that was passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. These laws help define the scope of government efforts to prevent terrorist attacks against the U.S. Notably, the new law does not authorize the government to collect data on citizens' electronic communications, a secret program that was exposed by former government contractor and now U.S. exile Edward Snowden. However, the government can still obtain those records from the phone companies if it has a warrant.

In January 2002, four months after the 9/11 attacks and with concerns about terrorism still high, 47% of Americans said the government should take all necessary steps to prevent terrorism, even those that violated individual civil liberties, while 49% said anti-terror efforts should stop short of violating civil liberties.

A year after the attacks, in September 2002, Americans showed a greater concern for civil liberties, with 62% saying anti-terror efforts should not violate civil liberties and 33% giving anti-terror efforts the higher priority. Since then, opinion has not fundamentally changed, although the 65% who currently prioritize protecting civil liberties is down slightly from 71% in 2011.

Republicans and Democrats currently hold similar views of whether maintaining security or protecting civil liberties is more important in government anti-terror efforts. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 66% say civil liberties should be the higher priority and 29% say protecting citizens from terrorism should be. Meanwhile, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents prioritize civil liberties over security by 64% to 32%.

In January and June 2002, Republicans were more sensitive to security from terrorism than to protecting civil liberties. By September 2002, they shifted toward prioritizing civil liberties and have done so since. They have become even more likely to say civil liberties should be respected with Obama in office than they were when George W. Bush was still president.

Trend: Republicans' Views of Tradeoffs Between Anti-Terrorism Efforts and Respecting Civil Liberties

Democrats have always given greater weight to protecting civil liberties, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 they showed a closer divide on whether civil liberties or security from terrorism should be the higher priority. Like Republicans, Democrats became more sensitive to protecting civil liberties over time. However, the current results suggest a dip in the percentage favoring the protection of civil liberties, perhaps relating to having a Democratic president -- one who called on Congress to pass the USA Freedom Act -- overseeing the federal government.

Trend: Democrats' Views of Tradeoffs Between Anti-Terrorism Efforts and Respecting Civil Liberties

Most Say Terror Efforts Do Not Violate Their Liberties

Some congressional critics of government anti-terrorism methods, most notably Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, argue that the government has too many powers in this area that violate citizens' rights. The majority of Americans, 55%, disagree, saying they do not believe such government programs violate their civil liberties. But that leaves a sizable minority of 41% who do feel the government is violating their civil liberties. Gallup asked this question for the first time in the June 2-7 poll, so it is not possible to know whether these views differ from those in the past.

Although members of key subgroups vary in the extent to which they believe government efforts to prevent terrorism violate their civil liberties, all groups fall below the majority level. Men are closest at 49%, and are much more likely than women (33%) to believe government anti-terrorism programs violate their civil liberties. There are no differences by political party, although political liberals are more likely than conservatives to say these programs infringe on their liberties. Across age groups, senior citizens are less likely than younger Americans to believe the programs violate their civil liberties.

Belief That Government Anti-Terror Efforts Violate Your Civil Liberties, by Subgroup, June 2015


The new USA Freedom Act was passed in a public opinion environment very different from that of the 2001 Patriot Act. Once the heightened concern about terrorism evident in the first several months after 9/11 faded, Americans began to place a greater emphasis on protecting civil liberties when thinking about preventing further acts of terrorism. Importantly, those shifts in public opinion occurred long before Snowden exposed the vast government program of collecting data on Americans' electronic communications. And Americans continue to place a greater emphasis on civil liberties even as concern about terrorism has risen amid the growing threat of ISIS.

The change in the public opinion climate, which is reflected in the views of elected representatives, may help explain why the newly passed USA Freedom Act pulls back some of the powers the Patriot Act provided to the government in its efforts to prevent terrorism.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 2-7, 2015, with a random sample of 1,527 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View survey methodology, complete question responses, and trends.

Learn more about how Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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