Personal Liberties and the Public Good: A Delicate Balance

By now, you’ve likely heard that all over the US, small groups of protesters are demonstrating at state capitols over their displeasure with state mandates on masks, quarantine, and other public health policies to help slow Coronavirus. Maybe you even agree with them. After all, being told what to do is never a great feeling. But what many of these protesters do not seem to realize is the legal precedent for restricting freedoms for the sake of public health. The states’ power to do so increases when an emergency is declared.

A well-known 1905 court case in the US, Jacobson VS. Massachusetts, addressed this issue. The city of Cambridge, MA had required smallpox vaccination for adults. Minister Henning Jacobson refused to get vaccinated and wouldn’t pay the fine. He challenged the ordinance in Cambridge, claiming the vaccination law was unconstitutional, but the courts rejected his argument, saying that personal liberties may be limited for the public good (Mariner, Annas, and Glantz, 2005). That is happening in the United States now. The government is limiting certain personal freedoms to protect public health and lessen the impact of COVID-19, a disease with no vaccine or reliable treatment.

There are still limitations on state power to limit freedoms. For example, according to a 2020 article from Harvard Law Todaythe state cannot target specific groups. They cannot ban services at mosques while letting Christian services continue, for instance. They can, however, ban all gatherings beyond a certain size, regardless of whether they are religious, since a blanket ban does not target a specific group or individual.
It’s only natural to be upset when you can’t do the things you would normally do, like go out for dinner or see your family and friends. It’s normal to question these policies. However, it’s also important to know that doing what public health authorities are asking of you protects your community and helps reduce the number of deaths from Coronavirus. Lives are at stake and it’s up to you to do what you can to save them. Remember, this is a temporary situation, and the better we follow physical distancing and mask guidelines, the faster it will be over. Before you go to the store without a mask, or go visit friends, think: could what I’m doing hurt another person? If the answer is yes, please reconsider to protect your community. If you are interested in learning more about how policies affect Coronavirus cases and deaths, has a tool that allows the user to see the effect of different policies on COVID-19 infections. For more information on Connecticut’s response to Coronavirus, please visit Healthcare has a 24-hour Coronavirus hotline you can contact for information at 860.972.8100.

Written by Kim Adamski, HIV Prevention Specialist

Special thanks to Zita Lazzarini, JD, MPH, of the UConn School of Medicine for her help and expertise.

Restricting Civil Liberties Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic2020, Brett Milano
Jacobson V Massachusetts: It’s Not Your Great-great-grandfather’s Public Health Law2005, Wendy Mariner-George Annas-Leonard Glantz –
COVID-19 Simulator, 2020

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