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Keeping Us — and the Constitution — Healthy

Tania Simoncelli,
Technology & Liberty Program
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December 10, 2009

Public fears over the H1N1 flu virus seem to be subsiding (despite occasional flare-ups such as emergency bans on poster kissing) as the virus appears not to be as dangerous as was initially feared. At the ACLU we have been monitoring the course of the H1N1 because there is always a danger that fears aroused by a disease epidemic may lead to civil liberties violations. In the past, disease outbreaks have sometimes prompted government officials to respond with irrational fears, discriminatory behaviors, and panicked, coercive measures. These heavy-handed reactions — in the form of forcible quarantine, travel bans, and compulsory treatment — have nearly always proven detrimental to the goal of limiting the spread of disease.

We have released a white paper entitled Maintaining Civil Liberties Protections in Response to the H1N1 Flu. The paper provides:

  • an overview of the state of science of the virus.
  • an analysis of federal and state actions taken to date
  • a discussion of possible civil liberties concerns surrounding the government’s response to the flu, both looking forward and in years to come.

Thankfully, levels of public fear are currently not so high to allow for panicked government responses and unnecessary restrictions on individual rights and liberties. However, H1N1’s unpredictability, high transmission rate, and a number of reported severe cases among the young mean that it is likely to persist for some time as a serious health concern. As such, it is imperative that the nation engage now in conversation about appropriate responses to the current outbreak so that civil liberties concerns are considered part of — and not contrary to — a public health mitigation effort.

It is possible to safeguard privacy and liberty while still protecting public health, and now is the perfect time to set standards for things like vaccination and treatment programs that will keep us — and the Constitution — healthy.

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