Coronavirus and the Bill of Rights

Connor Kaeb

Swept up in the concern over the health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans could not see another crisis brewing in the background. In response to the pandemic, state and local governments have drastically increased in power, causing the constitutionally-guaranteed rights of United States citizens to increasingly fall by the wayside. Possibly even more concerning is the vitriol aimed at those who dare to speak out against the government encroachment on their rights face from members of the government, the media, and those Americans who are willing to sacrifice their liberty for a little bit of temporary security. No right has been deemed too sacred to prevent it from being trampled by a government bent on increasing its power in the name of stopping the pandemic. While the examples of this are numerous and are undoubtedly already well known and experienced by most Americans, it seems fitting to present a list of examples of some of these encroachments, presented in the order of the Bill of Rights:

First Amendment: The clearest example of a clear First Amendment violation is the decision by many governors to close churches. It is no real comfort that the state governments’ decisions apply to places of worship for all faiths. These restrictions also interfere with the First Amendment right of peaceful assembly. A peaceful protest in Chicago against the stay-at-home orders of the state and the city was dispersed by police.

Second Amendment: Despite being deemed essential by President Trump, various state/local governments have infringed upon the Second Amendment through regulations on gun and ammunition stores. New York, Michigan, and Washington explicitly ordered gun stores closed. The city of Champaign, Illinois, passed an emergency ordinance that specifically gave the mayor power to ban the sale of guns and ammunition.

Fourth Amendment: The technology many are calling for as a result of the pandemic could have a chilling effect on the Fourth Amendment. Technology-based contact tracing systems could prove to be an extreme invasion of privacy and a warrantless intrusion into Americans’ daily lives.

Fifth Amendment: The Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause is under assault with governments, including Champaign, Illinois, asserting their ability to take any citizens’ private property.

Sixth Amendment: Because courts are closed, justice is denied when the guarantee of a speedy trial has been discarded. For example, the Northern District of Illinois waived the requirements of the Speedy Trial Act through July 15, saying that “the court finds that the ends of justice served by the exclusion of time outweigh the interests of the parties and the public in a speedy trial.”

Despite these clear and obvious violations of constitutionally protected rights, many elected officials have been extremely flippant about the violations they are committing. The Democratic governor of New Jersey Phil Murphy, for instance, was questioned by the Fox News host Tucker Carlson on where he got his authority to “nullify the Bill of Rights.” In response, Murphy merely stated, “That’s above my pay grade, Tucker. I wasn’t thinking of the Bill of Rights when we did this.” Such sentiments are common among elected officials, and that is extremely concerning. The Constitution is the most important document of the American regime given that it organizes the entire structure of government and sets the rules for the game. The fact that any elected official can make a decision and not first weigh it against the Constitution to make sure it is aligned is extremely concerning and indicates how little credence the Constitution is given in this day and age.

Even more troubling than these attacks on civil liberties is the response faced by anyone brave enough to question or resist the restrictions. Everyday Americans who show legitimate concern about the erosion of their rights are mocked and derided on in the media and online. Respect for the Constitution is now said to be ‘selfish.’ Understanding the severity of the current pandemic while still pushing for the protection of constitutional rights do not have to be mutually exclusive, however. No one expressing concern over the threat the restrictions pose to liberty are denying that it is important to protect the health of the vulnerable among the nation’s population. After all, the Declaration of Independence makes it clear that a person’s first right is to life. But for those not at the same level of risk as the elderly or those with preexisting conditions, affronts to liberty should be extremely troubling. As we have seen time and time again throughout our nation’s history unfortunately, the government increases its power during a time of crisis and erodes further the rights of the citizens. With this erosion comes a promise of a return of those rights when the crisis is over. This never seems to happen however, as the government holds onto more and more of those rights once they have claimed them. While security is nice, and protection against a deadly virus is nice, sometimes the costs to liberty are too great to bear. The words John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail in 1775 remain extremely prescient today:

Our Consolation must be this, my dear, that Cities may be rebuilt, and a People reduced to Poverty, may acquire fresh Property: But a Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty once lost is lost forever. When the People once surrender their share in the Legislature, and their Right of defending the Limitations upon the Government, and of resisting every Encroachment upon them, they can never regain it.

This is the effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the Bill of Rights. It is vital that even in times of crisis those rights be defended, as once lost they will be lost forever.

About the Author

Connor Kaeb is the Managing Editor of American Discourse.

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