“Civil Liberties” Imperilled?

One of today’s big news stories, which probably appears in most American newspapers, is headlined in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “Poll finds many Americans would limit Muslims’ rights.” Other newspaper headlines are similarly alarmist.
The AP report on which these stories are based says:

Nearly half of all Americans say the U.S. government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans, according to a nationwide poll.
The survey conducted by Cornell University found that Republicans and people who described themselves as highly religious were more apt to support curtailing Muslims’ civil liberties than Democrats or people who are less religious.
The poll found that 44 percent favored at least some restrictions on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans. Forty-eight percent said liberties should not be restricted in any way.

The Cornell survey also found that people who pay a lot of attention to the news were more likely to favor “curtaining Muslim rights.” Rather than assuming that people who follow the news closely are most likely to know what they are talking about, the researchers and the AP writer took this as an indictment of news coverage:

While researchers said they were not surprised by the overall level of support for curtailing civil liberties, they were startled by the correlation with religion and exposure to television news.
“We need to explore why these two very important channels of discourse may nurture fear rather than understanding,” Shanahan said.

The Cornell report is available here. The report is odd in that it nowhere discloses the exact questions that were asked. Still, it is easy to see how misleading the report the AP coverage are.
The Cornell survey sought to address, among other issues, “possible restrictions on civil liberties of Muslim Americans.” The fundamental problem with the report, and press coverage of the report, is that most of the questions asked had nothing to do with restricting civil liberties. The actual results obtained by the Cornell researchers are shown below:

“All Muslim Americans should be required to register their whereabouts with the federal government.” Agree: 27% (Again, the survey report is surprisingly unprofessional, as there is no breakdown of the percentage who disagreed, as opposed to expressing no opinion.)
“Mosques should be closely monitored and surveilled by U.S. law enforcement agencies.” Agree: 26%
“U.S. government agencies should profile citizens as potential threats based on being Muslim or having Middle Eastern heritage.” Agree: 22%
“Muslim civic and volunteer organizations should be infiltrated by undercover law enforcement agents to keep watch on their activities and fundraising.” Agree: 29%

Of the four measures suggested above, only one–registering Muslims’ whereabouts with the federal government–would constitute a “restriction on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans.” It would, I think, be unconstitutional. But the other three are not infringements of civil liberties at all. Liberals don’t like racial profiling, but there is no “right” to compel law enforcement officers to be oblivious to one’s race or religion, and in some instances racial profiling is an important part of good police work. Likewise, mosques can be monitored or surveilled just like any other places where criminal activity may be planned or may take place. And there is nothing eiher illegal or unwise in infiltrating various Muslim organizations, much as the FBI infiltrated the American Communist Party and other radical groups decades ago. It is well known that some Muslim charitable and civic organizations have been fronts for the support of terrorist groups, and it is no “restriction” on anyone’s civil liberties for law enforcement agencies to keep an eye on such organizations.
The AP (and the Cornell researchers themselves) concluded that 44% of Americans, especially including those who are either religious or well-informed, supported “restrictions on civil liberties of Muslim Americans.” They arrived at that figure by adding up the totals of all those who agreed with any of the four statements quoted above. (Again, the actual wording of the questions is nowhere stated.) In fact, an accurate representation of the survey would be that 27% of respondents supported a restriction on civil liberties, albeit a mild one: a registration requirement.
But accurately reporting the poll’s findings would not have generated the scare headlines that the Cornell group, the Associated Press and the newspapers were looking for.
UPDATE: It occurs to me that an accurate headline for the AP story would be: “Well-informed Americans disagree with liberal concept of ‘civil liberties.'”


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