Liberty Versus Safety: The Constitutionality of Lockdowns
Madeline Holbrook, CLS ’22
The rapid spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) induced governments all over the world to create emergency safety measures in an attempt to slow the transmission between people. In the United States, the most stringent of these safety measures are shelter-in-place orders, otherwise known as stay-at-home orders or lockdowns. These measures are created by state governments, which direct citizens to stay in their homes as much as possible—and force “non-essential” businesses to close for the duration of the order.
The state of Pennsylvania lived under one such order beginning on March 21, 2020. On May 7, 2020, citizens and business owners from several different counties in Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit, County of Butler v. Wolf, in the Western District of Pennsylvania alleging that the stay-at-home order violated two Constitutional rights: the First Amendment right to assemble; and the fourteenth amendment right to substantive and procedural due process.
On September 14, 2020, the district court ruled that stay-at-home orders violate the First Amendment right to assemble and the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law. The court applied intermediate scrutiny to the restrictions. To pass intermediate scrutiny, a law must further an important government interest and do so by means substantially related to that interest. The court found that the restrictions were undertaken in support of a significant government interest: containing and managing the effects of COVID-19. However, the government may not regulate free speech or free assembly in such a manner that a substantial part of the burden does not reach the government’s goals. In short, stay-at-home orders are not a narrowly tailored solution to the problem. “A statute is narrowly tailored if it targets and eliminates no more than the exact source of the “evil” it seeks to remedy.” The court found that shelter-in-place orders impose too heavy a burden on citizens—taking away an express constitutional right—to solve too narrow a problem.
Turning to the Fourteenth Amendment analysis, the court also ruled that stay-at-home orders violate substantive due process. Courts have long recognized the right of citizens to be out and about in public.  Lockdowns deny citizens of this right and create a default position of being kept inside. While governments are authorized to take emergency measures to preserve the public health, the court ruled that the timeline for such measures has been long exceeded. The court ruled that the government is required to find a less burdensome means to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. In short, while lockdowns may be acceptable in the short term, in the long term they are not a sufficiently narrowly tailored solution to the public health problem as to be found constitutional.
“Broad population-wide lockdowns are such a dramatic inversion of the concept of liberty in a free society as to be nearly presumptively unconstitutional unless the government can truly demonstrate that they burden no more liberty than is reasonably necessary to achieve an important government end.” In a case where liberty and safety go head-to-head, the Western District of Pennsylvania came down on the side of liberty.
 Jacob Gershman, A Guide to State Coronavirus Reopenings and Lockdowns, Wall St. J. (May 20, 2020), https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-state-by-state-guide-to-coronavirus-lockdowns-11584749351.
 Cty. of Butler v. Wolf, Civil Action No. 2:20-cv-677, 2020 WL 5510690, at *8 (W.D. Pa. Sep. 14, 2020).
 Cty. of Butler v. Wolf, Civil Action No. 2:20-cv-677, 2020 WL 2769105, at *2 (W.D. Pa. May 28, 2020).
 Cty. of Butler v. Wolf, Civil Action No. 2:20-cv-677, 2020 WL 5510690, at *2 (W.D. Pa. Sep. 14, 2020).
 Id. at 14.
 Id. at 45.
 Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474, 485 (1988).
 Cty. of Butler v. Wolf, Civil Action No. 2:20-cv-677, 2020 WL 5510690, at *16 (W.D. Pa. Sep. 14, 2020).
 City of Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41, 53-54 (1999); Papachristou v. Jacksonville, 405 U.S. 156, 164-165 (1972); Byofsky v. Middletown, 429 U.S. 964 (1976) (Marshall, J., dissenting).
 Cty. of Butler v. Wolf, Civil Action No. 2:20-cv-677, 2020 WL 5510690, at *62 (W.D. Pa. Sep. 14, 2020).
 Id. at 23.
 Id. at 72-73.