Yes, The Government Can Fine You or Imprison You for Not Getting a Vaccine in the Age of COVID
In 1762, French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, published his treatise, On the Social Contract. It was a fundamental study on the establishment of political community and a commentary on commercial society. In an over-simplification, the social contract is a political philosophy that puts forth the following proposition: Man surrenders some of his natural rights in exchange for protection from the ‘State’. It is the justification for “Police Power” and the notion of the social contract is deeply ingrained in our American capitalist/”democratic” society.
In 1905, the United States Supreme Court, in Jacobsen v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905), citing (you guessed it!) the state’s police power, upheld a state law that criminally penalized and/or fined individuals who did not obtain the smallpox vaccination. This is otherwise known as and referred to as a “compulsory vaccination law”.
The Supreme Court stated that “… the 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.” The Court went on “[t]here 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.”
The reasoning in Jacobsen is inherently utilitarian and is best summarized during Justice Harlan’s opinion when he stated “[t]he 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.”
So, what does this mean in the age of COVID? Well, it means that the “state” (local, state or Federal governments) may be able to compel COVID vaccinations and those who refuse (without good or legitimate reason) may be subject to criminal penalty.