Tonight we take up the question: are quarantines constitutional?
China has locked down entire cities, shut down public transportation, blocked highways, and gone door to door to find sick people in response to the coronavirus outbreak there. Could governmental authorities in the United States impose similar quarantine measures in response to a disease outbreak here?
The answer is yes, and it would be perfectly constitutional. In a 1900 case, the Supreme Court said:
In 1905, the Court further explored the tension between individual liberties and the common good, coming down in favor of Massachusetts’ compulsory vaccination law. The Court said, “Upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.”
Generally speaking, states have broad powers to protect the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of their inhabitants under what was formerly called the police powers. The doctrine has changed a bit, but the power to safeguard public health remains.
U.S. law empowers governments to quarantine people, commandeer private property and personnel, and declare martial law in public health emergencies. These are broad, sweeping powers, but does this mean we are no different from communist China? The answer is no, first of all, because there are limits on governmental public health powers in the United States. Some constitutional protections must be observed. The government must have valid reasons to use health emergency powers in the first place - it can’t act arbitrarily; the health measures imposed must be reasonably designed to achieve a health objective; the benefit must outweigh the burdens placed on people; and authorities must avoid harming people in the process.
A second key difference is that China attempts to control information, and we do not. China has been censoring social media, silencing doctors and others who speak out, and clamping down on media to the extent of expelling foreign reporters and threatening the press abroad. The end result of trying to cover everything up has been a bigger health disaster for the world than it needed to be. Thanks a bunch, China.
Finally, there’s a key philosophical difference between communist China and America. In response to the outbreak, Chinese citizens petitioned their government for the right of free speech. In America, we are born with the right of free speech and other natural rights. We don’t have to ask the government for our rights, and the government can’t take them away from us. China holds itself out as a ‘Model to the World’ but the coronavirus shows, once again, that it’s the American Founding - not ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ - that truly lights the way to human progress and flourishing