Several faculty at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where I teach, collaborated on a special summer school course investigating the challenges posed by the pandemic to our particular fields–criminal justice, disaster preparedness, non-profit organizations…and in my case, civil liberties.
Here’s an abbreviated (but still pretty long) version of my lecture.
The Coronavirus pandemic has raised a number of issues that are new or even unprecedented. One is a fundamental governance issue: what is the proper balance between government’s obligation to protect and the individual’s right to autonomy, or self-governance?
The rights guaranteed to individuals under the U.S. Constitution are civil liberties; they are guarantees against governmental infringement of our fundamental, human rights. Civil rights, on the other hand, are statutory rights against discriminatory behavior by private entities. The question we’re going to explore in this class is limited to civil liberties—specifically, how much additional latitude the Constitution gives government to limit individual rights in order to discharge its duty to protect our health and lives—civil liberties in the time of a pandemic.
There are a multitude of issues raised by government’s efforts to keep us safe and control the pandemic.
· One of the most visible—and contentious—issues involves federalism. Federalism, as you know, is the structure whereby government jurisdiction, or authority, is divided between federal, state and local units of government. What is the role of the federal government in a pandemic? What powers and decisions are reserved to the states? In previous situations involving threatened pandemics, there was much more co-ordination, and most of the questions we now face didn’t arise. This time, however, there has been a great deal of public confusion over where various responsibilities lie; the President has asserted his authority to over-rule governors on several matters, but he has also disclaimed responsibility for tasks that he says are state responsibilities. Several of those statements are inconsistent with the Constitution, which vests primary responsibility with the states. As you consider America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the very uneven experiences of the states, you might also consider where America should place primary responsibility for pandemic response.
· Another issue that has been debated is: What are the limits of civil disobedience and the First Amendment right to assembly during a pandemic? This issue arises in several ways: some citizens have protested state orders requiring masks and social distancing (and some of those protestors have been armed, which is disquieting). Those protests pale, however, before the hundreds of thousands of citizens who have participated in the widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd. The states did not move to curtail those demonstrations on the basis of the threat to public health, and the data we now have suggests that those protests were not, in fact, a triggering event. The lack of spread has been attributed to the fact that protestors were outdoors, and a significant percentage of them wore masks.
· Requirements to wear masks have generated especially nasty confrontations, with people comparing the requirements to “communism” and “attacks on the Second Amendment.” My own reaction to these assertions is based less on the Constitution—which I think pretty clearly allows such measures –and more on logic, or more properly, the lack thereof. The government can and does require you to wear a seat-belt; ordinances require that we refrain from smoking in public places. For that matter, government requires us to wear clothing—at least enough to cover our genitals—in public. It is illogical to obey these and other common mandates and yet claim that wearing a mask in order to abate a pandemic is somehow a new and offensive invasion of personal liberty. I will say that what I find offensive is the unwillingness of these people to wear a mask intended to prevent them from infecting others. They are either unbelievably selfish, or perhaps they believe, with the President, that the pandemic is a “hoax.”
· So much for masks. What about the shutdowns, the “stay-in-place” orders? Here, the law seems pretty clear; ever since a 1905 case—Jacobsin v. Massachusetts—the Supreme Court has upheld the right of government to impose quarantines and require vaccinations. Government does have to demonstrate the reasonableness of those measures, but assuming it meets that burden, requirements for quarantines and vaccinations are clearly allowed.
· What about interstate travel, which the Supreme Court has long held to be a fundamental right? We’ve seen some governors restricting people from entering their states from so-called “hot spots.” I am unaware of cases testing those restrictions.
· Using cellphones for “contact tracing” has been met with considerable alarm from privacy advocates and organizations concerned with the level of government surveillance. That’s another area of legal ambiguity.
· The right to vote is a critically-important constitutional right, and cases have already challenged restrictions on the availability of absentee ballots. (A related issue is the evident inability of many states to handle increased voting by mail—situations that may deprive people of their constitutional rights by reason of inadequate capacity to perform, rather than by intent.)
· Several states have used pandemic restrictions to justify denying women’s constitutionally-protected reproductive rights, spawning litigation about the degree to which those restrictions can be imposed.
· Both the right of Assembly and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment have been cited by religious organizations—primarily churches—that have objected to limitations on public gatherings. (Medical scientists tell us that singing in a confined space is particularly dangerous.)
· Then there are incarcerated persons, and would-be immigrants who are being detained at particular risk. At what point do the conditions of confinement rise to the level of “cruel and unusual punishment”?
· A fascinating case that has been filed raises an increasingly important First Amendment Free Speech/Free Press issue: can sources of disinformation be held liable? The case is Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics v. Fox News. The plaintiff alleges that Fox News violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act and acted in bad faith, both by disseminating false information about the novel coronavirus through its television news broadcasts and by minimizing the danger posed by the virus as COVID-19 began to explode into a pandemic.
The Executive Director of the non-profit was quoted as saying that they aren’t trying to chill free speech, but that they believe the public was endangered by false and deceptive communications in the stream of commerce. She emphasized that there are a lot of people who listen to Fox News, and that Fox is not taking the recommendations of public-health officials seriously. She has asserted that “This lawsuit is about making sure the public gets the message this is not a hoax.”
I think it is highly unlikely that the Washington League will prevail, but the lawsuit raises some profound questions about the nature of speech that might be considered the mirror-image of “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.” In this case, Fox is accused of shouting “There’s no fire; stay in your seats” when, in fact, there is a fire.
For a more scholarly exposition of these and other civil liberties issues, click here.