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Coronavirus and Civil Liberties

Federal, state, and local governments have the legal power to respond to the pandemic to save lives and stop its spread, but they must do so responsibly while taking our civil liberties into account.

Published: April 3, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is a true emer­gency. Amer­ic­ans are count­ing on govern­ment offi­cials—fed­eral, state, and local—to do whatever is in their power to save lives and mitig­ate harm. In such situ­ations, govern­ments might need to take extraordin­ary action that would be inap­pro­pri­ate under normal circum­stances—in­clud­ing actions that affect Amer­ic­ans’ civil liber­ties.

But history also teaches that govern­ments can over­re­act, impos­ing meas­ures that are unne­ces­sary or that sweep too broadly. Moreover, actions that might be appro­pri­ate in the midst of crisis can become entrenched as perman­ent fixtures of govern­ment policy. And govern­ments can exploit crises to enhance their own power or to justify acting outside the law.

The Bren­nan Center supports the respons­ible use of emer­gency powers and other legal author­it­ies neces­sary to effect­ively combat the spread of the coronavirus. At the same time, we are work­ing to ensure that the govern­ment’s responses do not go beyond what the law allows, and that any effect on civil liber­ties is no greater than needed to address the crisis at hand.