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This 115-year-old Supreme Court Case could determine if states can force you to wear a mask

The 1905 decision relates to vaccines

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The U.S. Supreme Court is seen Tuesday, June 30, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Wearing a mask has become the new normal amid the coronavirus pandemic, but whether or not the government can force you to wear one has become a topic of contention.

The argument pits the power of government to protect the public’s health against the Constitution’s protection of civil liberties. As people consider challenging mask mandates in the courts, there’s a Supreme Court decision against a Massachusetts man who refused vaccination during a smallpox outbreak that keeps coming up as a reference point for legal battles.

Jacobson v. Massachusetts could be used in the argument when trying to justify the government’s abilities to curb one’s liberties in the interest of public health as it expands on the state’s capacity to regulate behavior and enforce order within their territory for the betterment of the health, safety, morals and general welfare of residents. This is otherwise known in constitutional law as a state’s police power.

In 1902, the city asked the board of health in Cambridge, Massachusetts for advice to mitigate the smallpox outbreak. The board adopted a regulation that those who had not been vaccinated should be, the board asking the city to make vaccinations a requirement.


Read the regulation below:

“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 habitants of the city who have not been successfully vaccinated since March 1st, 1897, be vaccinated or revaccinated.”


A criminal complaint was then filed against Jacobson in the state’s lower courts. According to court records, the 21-year-old refused to comply with the requirement.

Jacobson argued the vaccine mandate infringed upon his federal rights as outlined in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution also pointing to the clauses that no state shall make or enforce any law abridging the privileges or immunities of citizens of the U.S. He was arguing the state was overstepping its police power.

As the case moved through the courts, Jacobson’s defense was that the smallpox vaccination “quite often” caused serious and permanent injury to the health of the person vaccinated and occasionally in death.

The court ruled that epidemic played a huge factor in the decision, saying the widespread smallpox outbreak justified a general rule for vaccination, saying the state was working to protect public health and safety.


“Such an answer would mean that compulsory vaccination could not, in any conceivable case, be legally enforced in a community, even at the command of the legislature, however widespread the epidemic of smallpox, and however deep and universal was the belief of the community and of its medical advisers that a system of general vaccination was vital to the safety of all.”


The case sets a precedent as it is interpreted that all constitutional rights may be reasonably restricted when fighting a public health emergency. The Supreme Court upheld the authority of states to enforce compulsory vaccination laws.

Though the court came to the conclusion that the legislation did not invade any right secured by the Federal Constitution, the justices outlined that their decision should not be interpreted for abuse of power.

“To suppose the case of an adult who is embraced by the mere words of the act, but yet to subject whom to vaccination in a particular condition of his health or body would be cruel and inhuman in the last degree. We are not to be understood as holding that the statute was intended to be applied to such a case, or, if it was so intended, that the judiciary would not be competent to interfere and protect the health and life of the individual concerned. ‘All laws,’ this court has said, ‘should receive a sensible construction. General terms should be so limited in their application as not to lead to injustice, oppression, or an absurd consequence,” the court clarified.

The justices further outlined their decision does not mean the absolute rule that an adult must be vaccinated saying there are other considerations such as if a person is not fit for vaccination, or if the vaccination could impair their health or cause probable cause of death, items that the defendant in the case could not personally prove.

“We now decide that the statute covers the present case,” the decision reads. Court documents read the minority cannot control what’s done for the health and safety of the majority furthering the point a state is allowed to do things its public does not approve of if it’s an informed decision that is in the interest of the health, safety, morals and general welfare of their inhabitants. The country’s balance of powers is meant to make sure states are not abusing this power or misusing it in which the justices found Massachusetts was not.

Again, the context is in the timeline. It’s been more than 100 years since the case and public health and personal liberty laws have changed and a state’s police power has been further outlined.

There’s now the right to refuse treatment, the necessity for a present and imminent threat of disease, and more modern constitutional law. Ultimately, it would largely depend on the case challenging mask mandates and the regulation itself for a court to come to a decision.


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