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2020 Survivor’s Guide: The Constitutionality of Face Masks

Let’s talk about face masks.  Public dress codes have been a part of American society since its inception.  They are the reason why everyone puts on clothes to go out in public.  Most of us do not question the government’s right to make us wear pants when we leave our homes.  It just makes sense.  If we are okay with the government telling us to cover our butthole, why are we so upset when it tells us to cover our face-hole?    

This post looks at the two constitutional rights that come into play when the public is required to wear a face mask:  (1) your liberty interest in your personal appearance under the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and (2) your freedom of expression.  Spoiler alert:  Neither give you the right to refuse to wear a mask.

LIBERTY INTEREST IN APPEARANCE

The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits federal government interference with your “liberty,” i.e., your person.  U.S. Const., am. V.  Through the Fourteenth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment’s prohibitions on interferences with your person are extended to the States.  U.S. Const., am. XIV. 

In 1976, SCOTUS appeared to recognize that a person may have a protectable liberty interest in their personal appearance.  Kelley v. Johnson, 425 U.S. 238, 244 (1976).  In Kelley, SCOTUS upheld a county regulation limiting the length of county policemen’s hair.  Id. Because it rejected the constitutional challenge on other grounds, SCOTUS never actually confirmed whether we have a liberty interest in our personal appearance.  Id.

Since Kelley, however, courts across the country have recognized liberty interests in a person’s  appearance.  For example, federal courts of appeals have tackled the question of whether states can prohibit police officers from wearing earrings, Rathert v. Village of Peotone, 903 F.2d 510, 514 (7th Cir. 1990), denied the right of states to prohibit men from jogging shirtless, DeWeese v. Town of Palm Beach, 812 F.2d 1365, 1367 (11th Cir. 1987), and taken on prohibitions against beards on teachers in public schools.  Domico v. Rapides Parish Sch. Bd., 675 F.2d 100, 101 (5th Cir. 1982). 

But, unlike the liberty interests protected in other seminal cases like Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) (procreation), Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965) (family life), and Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (right to marry), your liberty interest in your appearance is not a “fundamental” right.  Kelley, 425 U.S. at 244.  When the right which you claim the government is infringing is not a “fundamental right,” the law will be upheld if it is rationally related to a legitimate government interest.  Mass Bd.  of Ret. v. Murgia, 427 U.S. 307, 314-15 (1976).   

Now that you understand your basic right, I’m going to cut to the chase:  You do not have a protectable liberty interest in your decision not to wear a mask during a pandemic because a law requiring you to wear a mask is rationally related to a legitimate government interest in public health. 

Just in case you don’t believe me, I’m going to take you back in time 115 years to meet my friend Mr. Jacobson, a man with a vendetta against small pox and the state of Massachusetts.

JACOBSON V. COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS

So, Mr. Jacobson lived in Massachusetts at the turn of the twentieth century. Before that, he lived in Europe where he had been inoculated with small pox.  Inoculation works like this: you find someone with small pox, you pop the blister, you smear the small pox pus on your arm and hope you don’t die.  It was effective at inducing immunity to the disease, but it sucked.

Jacobson survived it, obviously, which is why he was super bummed to discover that Massachusetts was going to require him to also be vaccinated against small pox, even though he had been inoculated years earlier.  He sued Massachusetts, claiming that its mandatory small pox vaccination  unconstitutionally infringed upon his liberty interest.  Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Mass., 197 U.S. 11, 26 (1905).  SCOTUS rejected his challenge and held that “the police of a state must be held to embrace, at least, such reasonable regulations established directly by legislative enactment as will protect the public health and the public safety.”  Id. at 24. SCOTUS explained that our constitutional liberty interest is not absolute and can only exist to the extent it is safe for others  Id.  at 25. 

I don’t know if Jacobson, the person, survived the small pox outbreak in Massachusetts in 1905.  I’m assuming he did since he had to get the vaccine.  But I do know that Jacobson, the case, has survived 115 years as good law and is currently being upheld by courts across the country to address challenges to COVID-19 laws.  See In re Abbott, 954 F. Supp. 3d 775 (5th Cir. 2020) (striking down a COVID-19 law prohibiting abortion); Carmichael v. Hawaii, 2020 WL 3630738, *5 (D. Haw. July 2, 2020) (upholding Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entry into the state). 

What does this mean for masks?  If SCOTUS says that it is not an invasion of your liberty interest to physically inject your body with something in order to protect the public health during an epidemic, I really do not think you are going to win on a claim that simply placing a mask on your body, temporarily, during a global pandemic of an airborne virus somehow violates your liberty interest. 

But wait, there’s more.

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

The First Amendment is the constitutional amendment that protects “freedom of speech.”  U.S. Const., am. I.  Although the text of the amendment only refers to “speech,” SCOTUS has long held that the First Amendment’s protections extend to both orally expressed statements and physically “expressive conduct” that is used to communicate something to another person.  Clark v. Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293 (1984).

SCOTUS has applied the freedom of expression to protect people’s choice in their personal dress and appearance.  For example, SCOTUS has protected the rights of protestors to wear “F—- the Draft” shirts, Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 18 (1971), and black arm bands to protest the Vietnam war.  Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 505-06 (1969). 

Freedom of expression, however, has its limits.  A law impacting freedom of expression will still be upheld if it is (1) within the constitutional power of the government, (2) furthers an important or substantial interest, (3) the governmental interest underlying the law is unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and (4) “if the incidental restriction on the alleged First Amendment freedoms is no greater than essential to the furtherance of that interest.”  U.S. v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 377 (1968). 

As we saw in Jacobson¸ requiring you to wear a mask is definitely within the constitutional power of the government.  States unquestionably have “the power . . . to enact and enforce quarantine laws for the safety and protection of the health of their inhabitants[.]”  Compagnie Francaise de Navigation a Vapeur v. Bd. of Health of State of La., 186 U.S. 380, 387 (1899).

And protecting public health is clearly an important and substantial interest. 

Plus, the underlying interest of public health is unrelated to freedom of expression.  You can say whatever you want behind that mask.  You can even wear a mask that states: “masks don’t work” or “I don’t believe in science.”  Your beliefs regarding whether masks work, whether COVID-19 is real, or whether this is all a conspiracy theory are not being regulated. 

Finally, again, the restriction is de minimis.  You are being asked to wear a mask for a short period of time.  It is temporary.  You do not have to wear it in your own home. 

To sum it all up, your refusal to wear a mask is not protected by your freedom of expression. 

2020 SURVIVOR’S TIP

Wear the mask.  Just wear it.  And for the love of Jacobson, stop claiming you have a constitutional right to free your face hole.

Bikinis, Coffee and Strippers: Just Another Day in the Ninth Circuit

What do bikinis, coffee and strippers have in common?  Nothing except for the fact that they all play a role in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Edge v. City of Everett, 929 P.3d 657(2019).  Edge takes us to Washington, the land of bikini barista coffee stands, where women wear next to nothing (and sometimes nothing) while serving coffee at road side stands.   After the City of Everett enacted ordinances requiring the baristas to wear a few more inches of fabric, several of the baristas complained that the City of Everett had unconstitutionally infringed on their freedom of expression under the First Amendment.  The Ninth Circuit disagreed.

THIS JUST IN: STRIPPING IS PROTECTED BY THE FIRST AMENDMENT

That actually is not just in, but it is new information to me.  Since the 1970’s, SCOTUS has protected stripping as a freedom of expression under the First Amendment. 

The First Amendment is the constitutional amendment that protects “freedom of speech.”  U.S. Const., amd. I.  Although the text of the amendment only refers to “speech,” SCOTUS has long held that the First Amendment’s protections extend to both orally expressed statements and physically “expressive conduct” that is used to communicate something to another person.  Clark v. Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288, 293 (1984).

In California v. LaRue, 409 U.S. 109 (1972), SCOTUS applied this logic to uphold California’s legislation barring liquor in strip clubs.  Noting that the First Amendment freedom of expression had been extended to motion pictures and theatre performances, and that stripping was, in some cases, basically a really erotic theatre performance, SCOTUS found that strippers do have some limited First Amendment rights.  Id. But, because California sought to regulate liquor sales rather than the actual um, performance, the California law was upheld.  Id.

In Schad v. Borough of Mount Ephraim,452 U.S. 61 (1981), SCOTUS again noted that nudity does not exclude conduct from the protection of the First Amendment.  Id. In Schad, SCOTUS found that a local ordinance attempting to ban an adult bookstore from allowing a live nude dancer was unconstitutional.  Id.

This does not mean that strippers have a carte blanche right to roam about dancing in the nude.  As SCOTUS explained in Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., 501 U.S. 560 (1991), the states still have the right to enact laws limiting when and where public nudity may occur and/or requiring strippers to wear “scant clothing” while dancing.  Id. at 571.  Barnes concerned an Indiana law banning all nudity in strip clubs, but allowing dancers to wear pasties and a g-string.  Id.  Reasoning that states can regulate morality provided that the state’s interpretation of “moral” conduct does not completely prohibit protected expressive conduct, SCOTUS upheld the state law. Id.  Since the dancers could still dance, and since the clothing required gave the audience the basic gist of nudity, the Indiana law was fine. 

These were family establishments after all.  We must have some standards. 

(Kidding. These were actually just strip clubs with no minors allowed). 

BUT, “BIKINI BARISTAS ARE NOT STRIPPERS”

According to the Bikini Baristas, they are not strippers.  Strippers wear little to no clothing in exchange for tips.  Bikini Baristas, in contrast, wear little to no clothing in exchange for tips. 

Wait a minute. 

I think we need to start from the beginning with this one. 

THERE’S CORRUPTION IN THIS COFFEE STANDS

If you are like me, you may not have ever heard of a bikini barista.  Seriously, I’ve learned so much today.  A bikini barista wears a “bikini” while serving coffee at a road side coffee stand. 

In Washington.  Which is not exactly known for balmy weather. 

If that sounds like a recipe for prostitution and trafficking . . . well, it is.  After receiving complaints that the baristas had a pretty fast and loose term for the phrase “bikini” and that patrons observed physical contact with customers occurring, the City of Everett mounted an undercover police investigation.  Edge, 929 F.3d at 660-61.  The police discovered that many of these road side coffee stands were fronts for prostitution and trafficking, that many of the baristas were paid solely in tips and encouraged to wear little or no clothing for larger tips, and that assaults frequently occurred.  Id. at 661. This undercover operation lasted for five years, and after five years, the Everett police were unable to solve the problems the coffee stands presented with the means available to them.  Id. Partially because they discovered that a sheriff deputy was involved in covering up one of the coffee prostitution rings (he’s been convicted, it’s all fine now). 

Anyway, after five years, the Everett police told the City that the bikini baristas were the City’s problem to solve.  And the City responded by, among other things, creating a dress code ordinance for the stands that required the baristas to wear more.  Id. at 662. 

THE BIKINI BARISTAS SUE FOR THEIR RIGHT TO BARE IT ALL

After the City’s enactment of the new dress code ordinance, several bikini baristas (and an owner of a stand) sued the City and argued, among other things, that the City’s dress code ordinance unconstitutionally infringed on their freedom of expression.  According to the baristas, the bikini (or whatever they were or were not wearing) was a symbol of “female empowerment” because it celebrated the female body and made women seem “approachable.”  Id. at 662-64.  The trial court agreed with the bikini baristas that the dress code ordinance might infringe their freedom of expression, and entered an order temporarily enjoining the City from enforcing the dress code while the lawsuit was pending. Id. at 664. The Ninth Circuit disagreed.

The  Ninth Circuit explained that protected freedom of expression requires that the “expressive conduct” convey a specific message for which there is a great likelihood that it will be understood by those to whom it is being conveyed.  Id. at 668. For example, SCOTUS has protected the rights of protestors to wear “F—- the Draft” shirts, Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 18 (1971), and black arm bands to protest the Vietnam war.  Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 505-06 (1969). 

In contrast to the situations in which SCOTUS has protected freedom of expression, the bikini barista’s claim arose in a commercial setting.  The Ninth Circuit found that “the commercial setting and close proximity to the baristas’ customers makes the difference” because the “baristas’ act of wearing pasties and g-strings in close proximity to paying customers” where the “baristas indisputably solicit tips . .. creates a high likelihood  that the message sent by the baristas’ nearly nonexistent outfits vastly diverges from” the messages of “female empowerment” the baristas claimed to be sending.  Edge, 929 F.3d a 669.  In other words, the message conveyed may have been one of empowerment, but the message received was most likely “give me more money.”  And, given the high rates of prostitution, trafficking and assault found by the City’s police department, the “empowerment” part of the message was clearly lost in translation. Id.

IT MIGHT BE DIFFERENT IF THEY WERE STRIPPERS

Although the Ninth Circuit found that the bikini baristas will have a hard time prevailing on their freedom of expression claim, it did throw them a bone.  To paraphrase the gist of what Judge Christen was hinting at in the opinion:

Hey, bikini baristas, you keep claiming that you are not strippers, and therefore, we cannot find a constitutional basis to protect your claimed freedom of expression.  But if you were to say that you are strippers – you know, those other women who take their clothes off for tips just like you – maybe we could talk. 

Clearly the moral of this story is to claim you are a stripper, even if it subjects your employer to all kinds of zoning violations.