Are Mandatory Face Masks On Airplanes A Civil Rights Offense?
U.S. airlines recently announced they are requiring passengers to wear face masks while on board and in highly trafficked areas before boarding. There has been reactions from many on this issue for a range of reasons. One of those reasons is that it’s a mandatory face masks are a violation of a person’s individual freedom.
Cheryl Chumley recently wrote in The Washington Times that face mask requirements are, “a mandated muzzle on America” and that these are the actions of socialist and authoritarian states. This led me to look into this issue and really break up the argument Ms. Chumley is relying on to claim mandatory face masks on airplanes (and in general) are a civil rights offense.
Civil Right vs. Civil Liberties
In order to understand this issue more clearly, it’s important to understand the difference between civil rights and civil liberties. Civil rights is the:
basic right to be free from unequal treatment based on certain protected characteristics (race, gender, disability, etc.) in settings such as employment, education, housing, and access to public facilities.
In other words, civil rights concern areas of legal protections that prevent discrimination based on a protected class.
On the other hand, civil liberties refer to those personal freedoms that are protected through the U.S. Bill of Rights. One of the most shining examples of a civil liberty is free speech, which is protected under the First Amendment.
Ms. Chumley seems to confuse the two in her piece. On one hand she claims, “This seems a blatant violation of an individual’s right to choose.” She then calls on “a return to sanity and sound civil rights’ protections.” Of course, there cannot be a civil rights violation here. Neither the government nor airline policies that impose mandatory face masks discriminates a protected class. Therefore, it’s safe to conclude this isn’t a civil rights offense.
Is It A Violation Of Civil Liberties?
While it’s clearly not a violation of civil rights, is there a case to be made it’s a violation of civil liberties? Remember that civil liberties are those protections granted in the Bill of Rights. In the current state, there is not a government mandate for face masks on airplanes.
Therefore, a private company’s requirement to wear a face mask cannot be a limit on an individual’s civil liberties. After all, the Bill of Rights does not put limitations on private individuals, companies, or corporations. The Bill of Rights is explicitly for the purpose of denying government the power to limit specified freedoms.
But that is not to say there is not an argument to be made that mandatory face mask policies from the government are without legal issues. The American Civil Liberties Union has cautioned governments on mandatory face mask requirements, saying, “A lot of people don’t want to be told what to do by the government and certainly the ACLU is very much in support.” But even the ACLU acknowledges that current mandates on face masks are largely protected by the government’s responsibility for public health.
However, a long-term mandatory face mask requirement from the government — including on airplanes — could lead to lawsuits. There is a reasonable case that a long-term policy does hinder an individual’s right to free expression. It’s a difficult balance that the government may need to deal with the longer the crisis continues.
Can Airlines Do This?
Ms. Chumley asks, “What gives businesses the authority to serve as government’s enforcer on this same face masking matter?” Of course, this is a particularly odd argument coming from somebody who believes in the limits of government power. Should the government prevent the airlines from mandatory face mask requirements? Should the government have the power to dictate to the airlines that they cannot require face masks? That seems to fly in the face of all of the individual freedom and choice rhetoric Chumley uses throughout the rest of the text.
In addition, in the America that Chumley aspires to be, should airlines not be free to set policies they believe in the best interest of their employees and staff? The guidance by CDC says face masks do serve a purpose. After examining that evidence, airlines decided they want to enforce a mandatory face mask requirement. That seems to be exactly the individual choice and freedom Chumley says she wants. This is no different than airlines self-imposing social distance bookings and seatings on their airplanes. They have the freedom to set the policies they think promote health and make their passengers happy.
This Is America
Of course, the purpose of face masks at this point it to prevent you spreading the virus to somebody else. On this subject Chumley says:
Here’s what the enthusiastically supporting mask-wearing sheep of the world will say: The mask is to protect other people! The mask is to stop the spread of COVID-19! The mask will save lives! There’s a national health emergency, dontcha know, and government and businesses and medical professionals are only trying to prevent the coronavirus from getting worse.
Well, those are all great reasons for government and businesses to demand citizens wear masks — in a socialist country. In an authoritarian society. In a communist, dictatorial, tyrannical kind of country.
But this is America.
And America is about freedom and free choice.
Chumley is right that America is about freedom and choice. Companies have the choice to require face masks for their employees’ and passengers’ well being. Chumley also has the choice to not take an airplane to her destination. She can certainly feel free to not fly with a company that has such a requirement. Chumley seems to think she has the right to dictate to a company the policies they can implement. That seems opposite freedom.
And most importantly, there is a component of America Chumley doesn’t understand: our love of our fellow Americans. During the very worst of crises, America rises to the occasion. We’ve seen people do wonderful things for victims of coronavirus. After September 11, 2001, we saw individuals rise up to help those in need. After synagogue shootings, we’ve seen Muslims lend a helping hand to the Jewish community. Time and again, Americans rise up for the good of others to help those in need.
Now in this time, the vulnerable population needs our help. Our elderly parents need to know they can be safe in public. Those that are sick who need to travel need to be just a little more at ease. Isn’t part of America about defending those who are most vulnerable in our society?
Chumley’s tone, demeanor, and tirade seems to be an attempt to rile people up and just be angry more than to elicit a serious policy conversation. It’s not based on reason or any legal definition of the words she uses. It’s certainly fair to be worried about the infringement on personal freedoms during this crisis. As a guy who worries about the encroachment of government into our lives, I completely relate to that point of view.
But that doesn’t mean we can use sloppy uses of words that have substantive and legal meaning. Civil rights matter to a great deal of people. Civil rights are those rights whose protections were expanded through the blood, sweat, and tears of the oppressed in our society throughout our nation’s history. Don’t confuse Ms. Chumley’s ornery opinion piece over an airline’s decision as the equivalent of a civil rights offense, the likes of which this country has seen way too much of.