Public Health Versus Personal Liberty – The Uneasy Case for Individual Detention, Isolation and Quarantine

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2011


In the summer of 2007, Atlanta attorney Andrew Speaker made headlines when, while traveling in Italy on his honeymoon, he was diagnosed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with extremely drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB), a contagious, untreatable and potentially-lethal condition. Against the instructions of U.S. public health authorities, Speaker re-entered the U.S. only to be served by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with a federal order of quarantine at a hospital in New York, the first such order to be issued in nearly half a century. Speaker challenged the CDC’s diagnosis of XDR-TB, resulting in an eventual downgrade of his condition and the lifting of restrictions on his movements. The Speaker case generated significant public attention and Congress conducted formal hearings regarding the incident. Speaker’s case highlights a crucial issue in public health law: the circumstances, if any, under which public officials may detain individuals against their will in order to protect the public from communicable diseases. In other words, when do utilitarian principles of social good trump the guarantees of individual rights afforded by the Constitution?