by Lawrence O. Gostin, University Professor and Founding O’Neill Chair in Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center, and Eric A. Friedman, Associate at O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center.
As fears of Ebola sweep the nation, several governors are instituting quarantine and other restrictive policies based on fear, not science. These appear to reflect political agendas and responding to the public’s clamoring for greater protection, expressed as an over-abundance of caution. But the rule of law stands precisely to prevent the state from depriving individuals of liberty based on irrational or exaggerated public fear. Legal standards on the state’s police powers to protect the public’s health and safety are well developed. Civil confinement of individuals who have not committed an offense is a massive deprivation of liberty that requires a clear justification beyond public fear. State statutes and constitutional law require sound scientific evidence of significant risk, reflecting a delicate balance between public health and civil liberties. Current quarantines (and calls for travel bans) are reminiscent of 19th Century views of walling off borders, which is impossible in a modern globalized world.
The touchstone of the law is public health necessity. Imposed quarantines represent a significant burden on people’s liberty, leading courts and legislators to create a high standard that must be met for mandatory quarantines. States such as New York require that quarantines be “necessary” to protect the public’s health. New Jersey's quarantine law requires a quarantine to be “by the least restrictive means necessary to protect the public health.” Simply put, a quarantine that is at odds with public health and scientific knowledge is also at odds with the law.