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VERIFY: Yes, states can legally mandate a vaccine, and fine or jail you for refusing it, but context is needed

The Verify team looked into a viral post claiming that states have the authority to mandate a vaccination under a 1905 legal precedent.

WASHINGTON — Question:

Do states have the authority to mandate vaccinations, and institute punishments for those who refuse, due to a 1905 legal decision, as claimed in viral posts?


Technically, yes.

Legal experts confirmed for the Verify team that the 1905 Supreme Court decision, Jacobson V. Massachusetts, gives states the authority to not only mandate vaccinations but also institute punishments like fines or jail time. 

This legal decision made an exemption for people with possible adverse health reactions. Most states also offer exemptions for those with religious or philosophical objections. 

But our experts also emphasized that this type of enforcement method seems unlikely. 


Lawrence Gostin, Georgetown University Professor; Director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law; Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law

Peter H. Meyers, Professor of Law Emeritus at The George Washington University Law School

Jacobson V. Massachusetts, 1905


To find out whether the viral posts are accurate, The Verify team turned to two legal scholars in the D.C. area. Both Lawrence Gostin from Georgetown University and Peter Meyers from The George Washington University confirmed that the landmark 1905 Supreme Court decision remained a strong legal precedent. 

"I think that case is still good law," said Meyers. "Even though it’s like 100 years old.”

This case focused on a regulation put into law in Cambridge, Massachusetts back in 1902. This regulation required residents to get vaccinated for Smallpox, threatening a fine for those who refused. 

A man named Henning Jacobson refused the vaccine and was convicted and fined as a result. Jacobson took his fight against this regulation all the way to the Supreme Court. 

In a landmark decision, the court ruled that these mandatory vaccinations were allowed and that punishments such as fines and jail-time were appropriate. 

Gostin said that this decision, now 115 years old, has been validated numerous times. 

"States are empowered by the Constitution," he said. "To mandate vaccinations.”

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"Legal, but unlikely"

Our experts emphasize that there is an important nuance to this story. 

This Supreme Court decision makes such a punishment legal, but that doesn't mean it's likely. 

"That’s not how we enforce vaccine laws these days,” said Meyers. "There are no criminal statutes in the states mandating children or adults get the flu vaccine for example."

According to Meyers, the more typical approach is for schools and workplaces to require a vaccine before a person may enter their facilities. Threatening jail-time or fines is less likely, our experts said. 

"States do have the power to compel vaccination," Gostin said. "The question is whether they should." 

Our experts also point out that there are some important exemptions. People who have a medical issue, like an allergy or a low immune system were explicitly exempted in that 1905 legal decision.

Gostin said that most states also have exemptions for people with religious or philosophical objections to vaccinations.

"It's not a constitutional requirement," he said. "States have these exemptions because they want to politically. They think it's the right thing to do."

So, what's the final verdict?

We can Verify that yes, states do have the authority to mandate vaccinations and enforce these mandates with fines or jail time. 

However, there are multiple important exemptions, and this has not typically been the approach to vaccine enforcement in the United States. 

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