by Nicholas Dwork
In 1798, the federal government passed the Sedition Act, making public dissent of the government illegal. This act violated the constitutional right to free speech. During World War II, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the federal government incarcerated innocent Japanese Americans. Both of these violations were done in a time of emergency. Both were huge regrettable mistakes. I had hoped that we in the United States, had become wise enough to avoid such mistakes again. But, in the spirit of Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who said “Never let a crisis go to waste,” our governments are once again taking advantage of an emergency to seize more control. They are forgoing respect for our rights in the name of safety and security.
Governors of several states have imposed state-wide house arrest, euphemistically called “shelter-in-place”. This violates our constitutional right to move freely, codified in Corfield v. Coryell as part of the Privileges and Immunities Clause. Several governors, including Governor Newsom of California, have banned large gatherings. This violates our right to peaceably assemble specified in Article I of the Bill of Rights.
In New Jersey, 15 men disobeyed the shelter-in-place order to congregate at a synagogue. They were arrested and fined. This violates our right to worship freely specified in Article I of the Bill of Rights. When asked under what authority he nullified the Bill of Rights, Governor Phil Murphy responded, “I wasn’t thinking of the Bill of Rights when I did this.” He could not provide a legal authority for his order.
California, prior to the arrival of COVID-19, had already instituted a state-wide rent control law. In the last few weeks, Governor Newsom instituted a moratorium on evictions. Now, Bill AB 828 would force a 25 percent reduction in rents. So, in California, a landlord must pay a fee in perpetuity for having the property, the state decides how much can be charged for rent (and can reduce the rent at any time), the state decides when contracts regarding the property can be enforced, and the state controls how rents can be collected. This is the government taking control of an individual’s property. And since the government has not provided just compensation, it is in violation of article V of the Bill of Rights. The more wide-spread act of shutting down companies by decree is a violation in the same vein.
Apple and Google will soon put contact tracing software on all of our cell phones. This software will record and notify the state governments of our movements. This is an unreasonable seizure of our property in violation of article IV of the Bill of Rights.
The examples are seemingly endless. The first stimulus bill passed through congress without a recorded vote. President Trump has threatened to disband congress. The proposed Earn It Act makes encrypted communications illegal. The Federal government is purchasing ownership stakes in large companies. The Federal Reserve has begun purchasing junk bonds. The New York mint has shut down production of gold coins.
Our governments can suggest and encourage desirable action. Given the choices in my life, I would choose to stay at home as much as possible. Our rights, though, are a constraint. Our governments must do the best they can to ensure our lives, liberty, and pursuits of happiness without violating the laws that make ours the land of the free. If our rights can be disbanded by decree, then their existence is a mere illusion to pacify us.
Nicholas Dwork was born and raised in Santa Clarita. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in Electrical Engineering and is now a post-doctoral scholar in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Engineering at UCSF.