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Many Americans Willing To Trade Some Civil Liberties To Combat Coronavirus


Coronavirus restrictions have certainly complicated life for Americans. They've also highlighted questions about the status of our civil liberties. Can I get an abortion? Can I buy a gun? Could I attend an Easter or Passover worship service? - all constitutionally guaranteed rights now in dispute in states throughout the country.

Before states even enacted stay-at-home orders, a national survey found that many Americans across the political spectrum were willing to give up some civil liberties if that was necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Professor Kevin Cope is one of the authors of that survey. He's a professor of law and public policy at the University of Virginia School of Law, and he joins us now.

Professor Cope, welcome.

KEVIN COPE: Thank you, Tom.

GJELTEN: So tell us a little bit about this survey. First of all, when did you do it? Because I would think that's probably an important point.

COPE: We started this study about four weeks ago, which seems like an eternity now. But this was right when countries in Europe were just beginning to put in place some of the most restrictive measures to fight the coronavirus. And this was right when there was a national conversation starting in the U.S. And we knew that the policy responses in the United States could mean the difference between many thousands of U.S. deaths or hundreds or thousands or more.

GJELTEN: And give us some of the top-line results. How many people did you interview, and, you know, what are the most important findings that jumped out?

COPE: So we told a representative sample of 3,000 U.S. residents about a number of different hypothetical policies to combat the virus. And we are interested in this question of, in the middle of a pandemic, what would make Americans willing to give up certain civil liberties?

And the policies we asked about ranged from those that were clearly constitutional, like banning non-citizens from entering the country, on one hand, to the other hand, those that were definitely problematic under the Constitution. These are things like punishing speech about the virus or conscripting health care workers or banning U.S. citizens from entering the country. And we also told half of the respondents that legal experts had looked at these policies and concluded that they were possibly unconstitutional.

And what we found was pretty surprising. One of our main findings is widespread support among both Republicans and Democrats and independents, among both young and old, for all of these policies, even for some of them that you would think would get pushback from Americans - things like speech restrictions. So 70% of our respondents supported these speech restrictions, potentially criminalizing people for certain types of speech. And 64% supported banning U.S. citizens from entering the country while the virus was still a threat.

GJELTEN: And one of the things that really is important, I think - and you've alluded to it - is that there was bipartisan support for - around many of these issues.

COPE: That's right. And we were pretty surprised by that because in other surveys, you see big differences between levels of support, say, for President Trump's handling of the crisis. And we also asked that question. Did you - what do you think of President Trump's handling of the coronavirus? And we had 88% of Republicans saying they approved of it and just 34% of Democrats.

So with those numbers, you might think that the respondents were differing about what policies. But that's not what we found. We found that support across Republicans and Democrats was similar. And I have a theory for why that's the case...

GJELTEN: Let's hear it.

COPE: ...Which is, getting sick and dying from a virus that you can get from someone standing too close to you - that's something that people of all political stripes are afraid of. And so our political leaders are less able to use it as a wedge issue.

GJELTEN: Do you see any parallels between the way that Americans are reacting right now and the way they reacted after Sept. 11, when there was also new measures to restrict civil liberties?

COPE: So often in history, when there's been an external threat, policies have targeted political minority groups, racial minority groups, non-citizens and so forth. And you mentioned Sept. 11. Of course, there was widespread increases in surveillance power under the Patriot Act. But some of the most profound changes really affected non-citizens - detaining people without trial, extraordinary rendition, enhanced interrogation. But here, we have policies that affect people pretty much across the board - a cross-section of society. So that's a major difference.

And the other difference, I think, is that people really expect this to be temporary. So some of the changes in the law after Sept. 11 - those were long-term changes to the law. The constitutional rules expanded in response to this new threat. Whereas I think people now expect that these restrictions will disappear once the virus is no longer a threat.

GJELTEN: And that's Kevin Cope, professor at the University of Virginia law school.

Professor Cope, thank you very much for your time.

COPE: Thank you, Tom.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS FEDERALES' "SIGNAL HILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.