The Extent of Freedom Under Community Welfare

by Madison Li ‘22

Source: Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Published Feb. 25th 2021

Throughout history, America has struggled to balance the protection of people’s freedoms with the maintenance of community welfare. Especially during wartime, the government tends to sow controversy by enacting legislation that threatens civil liberties, while using public safety as justification. The Sedition Act of 1798 and the Espionage Act of 1917 were claimed to be measures to unify the public during times of international instability. Instead, they were exploited to suppress any dissent against the government, essentially leading America’s government to mimic an authoritarian regime. Likewise, in order to bolster national security, Americans were asked to be wary of communist infiltration during the 20th century Cold War and other various Red Scares. Beneath the surface, though, those demands were meant to squash criticism of the government’s foreign policies. As it became evident that certain restrictions violated people’s freedoms, later presidents have usually apologized for and denounced them, along with Supreme Courts declaring them unconstitutional.

The reason these demands were and still are so controversial is that they threatened the people’s freedom of speech and press, which are supposed to be protected in the First Amendment. As freedom of expression is a core aspect of American democracy, the American government’s power shouldn’t encompass the ability to implement legislation that oppresses conflicting sentiments. There’s still ongoing debate over whether previous restrictions were necessary to the extent they were enforced, considering the nature of the ongoing wars surrounding such legislation. Some argue that they were offensively totalitarian, while others contend that in times of crisis, the government must be able to implement certain preventive policies. Where do we draw the line? 

As we’re currently in a time of crisis as well, the discussion around this question has been extended to modern society. Anti-maskers frequently declare “America is a free country” when asked to justify their refusal to adhere to contemporary public safety protocols. Basically, they claim that the new protocols threaten their freedom of expression and therefore oppose a core aspect of American democracy. There is a fundamental disparity between the past and the present, though. COVID-19 regulations are intended to promote public health and limit the spread of a dangerous disease that’s already claimed millions of lives. Furthermore, all the regulations are based upon scientific evidence and advice from medical experts. The main component merely consists of the individual wearing an extra garment to protect oneself from germs. Wartime anti-sedition acts, on the other hand, were used alongside propaganda to target dissidents and fuel popular support for possibly contentious federal policies. They were enforced by attacking and prosecuting anyone who disagreed with the government. The main result, at least domestically, was egregious prejudice and discrimination against minorities. The difference is astoundingly clear.

It is clear that the requirement of wearing a mask doesn’t harm anyone or selectively target certain demographics. There are exceptions made for individuals with whom issues might arise due to health problems, but for the majority, COVID-19 regulations are safe and beneficial. Yes, masks and social distancing might be a little inconvenient, but they’re meant to protect every member of society, not attack specific groups. They apply to people of all ages, races, sexes, genders, incomes, etc., and are crucial to the functioning of a safe society.

By claiming the government cannot require the public to wear masks, one insinuates that any other necessarily indiscriminate laws that work to communal benefits, like COVID-19 regulations, cannot be enforced either—but this would trigger absolute chaos. For example, no one can yell “fire” falsely, since that can cause serious danger. Neither can anyone commit theft, property destruction, or murder without facing trial. Do such restrictions violate our rights and freedoms? Technically, no, because they exist within the parameter of necessary public safety, and they apply to every American. Without these basic restrictions, what kind of world would we be living in?

Without careful observance of COVID-19 regulations, we already know what kind of world we’d be living in: a dangerous one where every breath threatens sickness and death. It is imperative that we follow certain rules to sustain a functioning society, whose definition necessitates a safe environment. As the world changes, too, new rules are instituted and some freedoms are inevitably restricted so that public safety is maintained. Such new rules include COVID-19 regulations in 2021. Thus, anti-maskers’ “America is a free country” argument is invalid. We do protect certain freedoms, but only up until freedom threatens the safety and functioning of society. Needless to say, wear your masks, wash your hands, and social distance!

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