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The Constitution, COVID-19 and Citizenship

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Hunter
June 6, 2020

As if the coronavirus pandemic itself were not enough, governments of the world are now being challenged by protests about freedom of movement.

In our own country, we should be mindful that the Constitution not only guarantees certain human rights, but also charges the government with the responsibility of protecting its citizens. Finding that balance is the key.

I recently attended a local council of governments meeting where manhandling of people violating certain aspects of the stay-at-home rule was soundly denounced. Good observation. In the absence of criminal activity, protesters should be respected. Still, those who gather in protest, risking devastating health consequences for themselves, their loved ones and those around them, should remember that Constitutional guarantees are broader than simply freedom of movement.

Let’s review them.

Interpreters of the Constitution’s Privileges and Immunities Clause (Article IV, Section 2) infer that the freedom to travel across state boundaries and to move about is a right that must be respected.

The First Amendment of course provides protection of the right to speak one’s mind, allow uninhibited media and to assemble as a group for a variety of reasons including protesting or beseeching the government to fix things.

The Ninth Amendment tells us that listing these specific rights does not mean that citizens do not have other unmentioned rights. Assumption of the natural laws may apply here.

The Tenth Amendment gives state governments the right to exercise powers now being used to control the pandemic. It says that federal authority not delegated in the Constitution belongs to the states or to the people.

The Preamble to the Constitution puts a great deal of responsibility on the government. It reads:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

In order to provide for justice, tranquility, defense, general welfare and liberty, governments needed to create public safety, military, health, education, economic, infrastructure and logistics organizations.

These entities do not exist to curtail but to, “Secure the blessings of liberty,” and well-being for the people they serve. Therein lies the balance between the guarantee of freedom and the duty of government.

While it is the charge of those who serve in government positions to be sensitive and sensible, it is also the responsibility of us as citizens to be well-informed (as opposed to the mob mentality) and to respect the need for law and order for the benefit of all citizens.

United States Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland once wrote, “The freedom of the individual to do as he pleases, even in innocent matters, is not absolute. It must frequently yield to the common good.”

As we contemplate the common good, we must recognize that many service workers are heroes. We currently recognize health, public safety, education and human service professionals as heroes during this pandemic. But the truth is they’ve always been heroes. They’ve always put their personal needs at risk to serve us.

We’ve always been fortunate to have other citizen-heroes among us as well.

I recall the example of a local, petite 80-pound fireball named Velma Saunders who passed away at the age of 105 a few years ago. As a young girl in Louisiana, she witnessed a lynching among other atrocities. But she turned her energy from hate to community action. In the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi she persistently approached government officials to address needs such as a semaphore on a busy street for student safety, and the establishment of a recreation center in an underprivileged neighborhood.

She seemed to practice today’s social distancing, too, except for the time she invited her city’s mayor to a sleepover at her house to witness the snooze-depriving stench of a nearby slaughterhouse.

Velma is a past example of the services of numerous current citizen volunteers who make protective face masks, run errands for the homebound, help kids with homework during this time of distance learning and treat each other more thoughtfully.

Athletes at our university recently held a food drive in the parking lot of the athletic events center to help the homebound and homeless. Our students and interns recorded videos of themselves reading children’s books for small school children who were stuck in their homes during the pandemic.

It seems that all of us together have developed a higher sense of awareness and concern for each other. The beautiful outcome of this terrible pandemic will be found in our ability to sustain that mutual service and appreciation as we move into the future.

We must always recognize the importance of our individual roles in maintaining a government that cares and a citizenry that loves.


Author: Robert A. Hunter is director of The Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics and Public Service at Weber State University where he also teaches Leadership and Political Life. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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