Legalese — Mandatory Vaccinations

These days there is a lot of confusing information on the internet and social media.  The fact that we are still in a pandemic that affects public policy only highlights the problem.

One of the newest areas of confusion is the subject of vaccine mandates.  Can the government and/or a private entity require a particular vaccine as a precondition for employment or participation in anything?  Are there limitations?  Does it violate any constitutional rights? 

If you’re asking Facebook, the answer to any of these questions is “Definitely yes” or “Definitely no” depending on which Facebook user you’re asking.

Lucky for us, the ‘right’ answer doesn’t come from social media.  Whatever your personal opinion on the matter, the question has already been answered by the United States Supreme Court, way back in 1905 during the smallpox epidemic. 

In 1902, the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts adopted an ordinance which stated “Whereas, smallpox has been prevalent to some extent in the city of Cambridge and still continues to increase; and whereas, it is necessary for the speedy extermination of the disease, that all persons not protected by vaccination should be vaccinated; and whereas, in the opinion of the board, the public health and safety require the vaccination or revaccination of all the inhabitants of Cambridge; be it ordered, that all the inhabitants of the city who have not been successfully vaccinated since March 1, 1897, be vaccinated or revaccinated.” 

A man named Jacobson refused vaccination, was prosecuted under the law (and fined five dollars!!) and appealed his way all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.  Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote the decision for the Court upholding the mandatory vaccination ordinance.  He wrote: “The authority of the State to enact this statute is to be referred to what is commonly called the police power – a power which the State did not surrender when becoming a member of the Union under the Constitution.  Although this court has refrained from any attempt to define the limits of that power, yet it has distinctly recognized the authority of a State to enact quarantine laws and ‘health laws of every description;’ indeed, all laws that relate to matters completely within its territory and which do not by their necessary operation affect the people of other States.  According to settled principles, the police power of a State must be held to embrace, at least such reasonable regulations established directly by legislative enactment as will protect the public health and the public safety.” Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 24-25 (1905) (internal citations omitted.) 

Justice Harlan went on to say, “[T]he liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint.  There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good.  On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members.  Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy.  Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own, whether in respect of his person or property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”  Id at 26. 

In Crowley v. Christensen, 137 U.S. 86, 89, the United States Supreme Court said, “The possession and enjoyment of all rights are subject to such reasonable conditions as may be deemed by the governing authority of the country essential to the safety, health, peace, good order and morals of the community.  Even liberty itself, the greatest of all rights, is not unrestricted license to act according to one’s own will.  It is only freedom from restraint under conditions essential to the equal enjoyment of the same right by others.  It is then liberty regulated by law.”

All of that is a lot of fancy language to say that it doesn’t matter what you or I or anyone else thinks the law should be.  The Supreme Court has already ruled that vaccine mandates are legal during public health crises like a pandemic.

We are all, of course, entitled to our own opinion.  We may personally agree or disagree with what the Supreme Court has had to say.  However, we live in a nation of laws, and as such we have submitted ourselves to the authority of that law, whether we agree with it our not, and on this subject, the Supreme Court has already ruled. 

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice. It is being offered for informational purposes only.

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