Willamette College of Law offers new class on pandemic

by Jennifer Johnson,

Only a few months ago, America’s biggest public health problems included heart disease and stroke. 

COVID-19 changed that. Now conflict at every level of government is unfolding as policy, authority and public interest collide amid a relentless pandemic.  

Paul Diller headshot

A new course offered this fall by Willamette University Professor of Law Paul Diller highlights many of the legal challenges and complications presented by the novel coronavirus. Some undergraduates will be allowed to enroll. 

“COVID-19 has had such a massive impact on our society that it has affected every single area of law,” he said. 

In “Legal Implications of COVID-19 Pandemic,” public health law is the main focus, but a wide range of topics will be covered — from medical and family leave to elections and sports contracts — as well as recent policies like Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s executive order to stay at home. Guest lectures drawing on the diversity of faculty expertise are also planned. 

Students will gain a strong foundation in the basics of public health by learning the role of major organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, disaster and emergency legislation and the scope of emergency powers. Cases like Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which upheld state authority to enforce compulsory vaccination laws, will show the power states can wield to enforce public health laws, as well as the process courts go through balancing that against individual rights, said Diller. 

The First Amendment will play a prominent role in the course. In the realm of public health regulation, he said, it’s done more harm than good — for example, the constitutional right has been used by cigarette and beverage companies to strike down warning labels.  

“We have a tendency to romanticize the First Amendment — we think of it as an unalloyed good that protects the minority viewpoint,” he said. “But the doctrine has evolved to a place where it’s not too friendly to public health, and if you’re a public health practitioner, you’re going to have to deal with that.” 

As news of COVID-19 continues to shift, Diller’s curriculum may adapt accordingly before the semester starts. But the pandemic — once understood as a relic of the past— will be a problem we live with for quite some time. 

“One thing we’ll have to do in the public health field, and as a law school, is incorporate pandemics into the curriculum in a way we perhaps never have before,” he said.

About the Willamette University College of Law

The College of Law is a private law school located in Salem, Oregon at Willamette University, the oldest university in the western United States. Willamette Law boasts an innovative program designed to prepare leaders in government, private practice, and business with the lawyering skills needed in the 21st Century. In recent years, outside industry watchers such as Moody’s and The National Jurist Magazine have recognized Willamette Law for its positive job placement results. Willamette lawyers are the best dealmakers, problem solvers, community leaders, and change-makers in the most innovative and exciting region in the country. Our location — nestled in the heart of the Willamette Valley and across the street from the Oregon State Capitol, Supreme Court and many state agencies — is an advantage that cannot be matched anywhere in the region.

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