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Forum, Sept. 19: Vaccine mandate is constitutional

Published: 9/18/2021 10:00:05 PM
Modified: 9/18/2021 10:00:05 PM
Vaccine mandate is constitutional

Washington Post opinion writer Henry Olsen’s recent column, “Biden’s vaccine mandate is unconstitutional” (Sept. 14), lacks any reference to supporting authorities. That’s because there aren’t any.

Olsen insists that under our federal system, “the U.S. government does not have the power to require an adult American to do something with, or put something into, his or her body.” Yet the constitutional powers of the president and Congress to protect national security, interstate commerce and the general welfare undoubtedly include the authority to require vaccination in order to combat a scourge that has already killed 650,000 Americans and sickened millions.

A 1905 Supreme Court case called Jacobson v. Massachusetts upheld a state requirement of mandatory smallpox vaccinations in the midst of an epidemic. Under the Constitution, the Court said, reasonable measures to protect the health of the community may require the sacrifice of individual rights. “(I)n every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.”

Neither the validity nor the wisdom of that decision has ever been seriously questioned. Indeed, it has been reaffirmed by countless lower court decisions over the years.

Jacobson has not been applied to a federal vaccination mandate because no such mandate has ever before been imposed. But the Supreme Court’s reasoning in that 1905 case would surely be applied in any constitutional challenges to President Joe Biden’s order.

Olsen argues that the president failed to follow proper procedures in invoking his statutory authority under the Occupational and Safety Health Act, which provides for workplace safety rules. That remains to be seen. But it has nothing whatever to do with the constitutionality of the vaccine mandate.

Olsen is entitled to his opinion, of course, but not to misrepresent the facts.



The writer is professor emeritus at Vermont Law School.

Ronald Reagan’s true motivation

I must respond to James Dwinell’s Forum letter (“Going where the votes are,” Sept. 9), in which he tries to rebut Randall Balmer’s argument that Ronald Reagan’s decision to open his 1980 presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., was based on racism (“Race, Reagan and the rise of the Religious Right,” Sept. 5), wrongly suggesting that Reagan was only going “where the votes were.”

Intentional or not, the letter relies on two old and dangerous tactics. The first is the “big lie,” attempting to present falsehoods as truth, while the second is a version of “bait and switch,” cloaking real motivations with demonstrably false ones. These tactics represent an existential threat to our society and our democracy and must be called out every time for what they are.

Reagan did not go to Philadelphia, Miss., just 16 years after the brutal murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney just to be “where the votes were,” or even, as his campaign claimed, to reach rural voters. There are dozens of Mississippi counties with more voters, and hundreds more across the nation with more rural voters.

Reagan’s own words that day reveal his true motivation, with his repeated endorsement of “states’ rights.” Those are the very words apologists for the traitorous Confederacy use to hide what the Confederacy’s founders openly declared to be their true rationale: defending slavery. Segregationists like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond also relied on the states’ rights claim in opposing the civil rights movement.

Fourteen years after Brown v. Board of Education ruled against “separate but (un)equal schools,” and years before Mississippi public schools finally desegregated, Richard Nixon deployed his infamous “Southern Strategy” in his 1968 comeback, opposing busing to enforce school desegregation and, by inference, the Brown ruling.

From the Civil War to Nixon to Reagan to Donald Trump’s false challenges to President Barack Obama’s birthplace, all the lies and deflections have always been an appeal to the basest instincts of some white voters.

Call it what it is: racism.



The danger of riding the tiger

“We’re trying to help you,” said one Republican legislator to a crowd of anti-vaccination, anti-mandate demonstrators at the New Hampshire Statehouse on Monday, as several people in the crowd turned their backs on the lawmakers and others shouted, “Do your job!” (“NH crowd jeers lawmakers,” Sept. 15).

The scene brought to my mind the Chinese proverb, “He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount,” restated by John F. Kennedy during his presidency as, “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”



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