OXFORD, Wisconsin – A federal judge has ruled in favor of a high school student who said she was threatened with jail if she did not remove her social media posts about her contact with COVID-19 last year.
Amyiah Cohoon, then in second year, took a spring break trip to Florida with the Westfield Area High School group in 2020. The students returned to Wisconsin on March 15, earlier than planned, due to the coronavirus epidemic.
Cohoon posted on Instagram that she believed she had been infected, had been in hospitals, and although she tested negative, her doctors believed she probably had it earlier. In a final post, she wears an oxygen mask and says she has beaten COVID, and urges others to stay safe.
On March 27, Marquette County Sheriff’s Sgt. Cameron Klump came to Cohoon’s home and said Sheriff Joseph Konrath ordered the posts removed because he did not believe there were any confirmed cases of COVID in the county.
Earlier today, the school district administrator informed parents that there was “no truth” to rumors that a student contracted COVID-19 during the group’s trip. He called Cohoon’s posts “an insane way to get attention and the source of the rumor has been addressed.”
Cohoon cut the posts but sued Konrath and his deputy a month later.
U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig issued his summary judgment in the case on Friday.
“The First Amendment is not a framework for the government to turn on and off. This applies in times of tranquility and in times of conflict, “Ludwig wrote in a 16-page decision.
“While the defendants in this case may have believed their actions were serving the greater good, that belief cannot isolate them. Requiring a 16-year-old to remove protected speech from her Instagram account is a violation of the First Amendment . “
Cohoon and his parents were represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. WILL’s deputy attorney Luke Berg said the ruling shows free speech rights do not disappear in an emergency.
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“Most importantly, law enforcement doesn’t have to try to regulate social media posts by local teens.”
In addition to a statement that Konrath and Klump had violated their First Amendment rights, Cohoon and his parents had sought an injunction against any charges or threats of jail for any future social media post about his fear of the COVID.
Ludwig rejected the injunction request, saying it was too broad and unnecessary in light of his order that Konrath and his deputy violated Cohoon’s free speech rights.
The defendants tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, saying Klump had probable cause to charge Cohoon with disorderly conduct because he had reason to believe his messages caused “significant disturbance, anxiety, fear , concern and even panic among other citizens.
Ludwig said this argument significantly underestimates the probable cause analysis and, if accepted, would undermine the protection of free speech, “allowing police officers to have a free hand to wrongly arrest any person engaging in protected speech as long as the offending officer could report a possible disturbance or perceived anxiety among those who opposed the speech. “
And as to the defendants’ claim for qualified immunity, Ludwig noted that it simply does not apply to declaratory relief requests.
Follow Bruce Vielmetti on Twitter at @ProofHearsay.