A girl was threatened with jail over COVID-19 social media posts. A judge ruled in her favor

·3 min read

OXFORD, Wis. – A federal judge has ruled in favor of a high school girl who said she was threatened with jail if she didn't take down her social media posts about her brush with COVID-19 last year.

Amyiah Cohoon, then a sophomore, took a spring break trip to Florida with the Westfield Area High School band in 2020. The students returned to Wisconsin on March 15, earlier than planned, because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Cohoon posted on Instagram that she thought she had been infected, had been to hospitals, and though she tested negative, her doctors thought she probably had had it earlier. In a final post, she is wearing an oxygen mask and says she's beaten COVID-19, and urges others to stay safe.

On March 27, Marquette County Sheriff's Sgt. Cameron Klump came to the Cohoon home and said Sheriff Joseph Konrath had ordered the posts be taken down, as he didn't believe there were any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county.

Earlier that day, the school district administrator had notified parents there was "no truth" to rumors a student had contracted COVID-19 during the band trip. He called Cohoon's posts, "a foolish means to get attention and the source of the rumor has been addressed.”

Cohoon took down the posts but sued Konrath and his deputy a month later.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig granted her summary judgment in the case.

U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig
U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig

“The First Amendment is not a game setting for the government to toggle off and on. It applies in times of tranquility and times of strife," Ludwig wrote in a 16-page decision. "While Defendants in this case may have believed their actions served the greater good, that belief cannot insulate them. Demanding a 16-year-old remove protected speech from her Instagram account is a First Amendment violation.”

Cohoon and her parents were represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. WILL deputy counsel Luke Berg said the decision shows free speech rights don't disappear in an emergency.

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“More importantly, law enforcement has no business trying to regulate the social media posts of local teenagers,” Berg said.

In addition to a declaration that Konrath and Klump had violated their First Amendment rights, Cohoon and her parents had sought an injunction against any charges or threats of jail over any future social media posts about her COVID-19 scare.

Ludwig denied the injunction request, saying it was too broad and unnecessary in light of his order that Konrath and his deputy had violated Cohoon's free speech rights.

The defendants tried to get the suit thrown out, saying Klump had probable cause to charge Cohoon with disorderly conduct because he had reason to believe her posts were causing "significant disturbance, anxiety, fear, concern, and even panic among other citizens."

Ludwig said that argument dramatically understated the analysis for probable cause, and if accepted, would gut free speech protection, "allowing police officers a free hand to wrongfully arrest anyone engaging in protected speech so long as the offending officer could point to a possible disturbance or perceived anxiety among those who opposed the speech."

And as to the defendants' claim of qualified immunity, Ludwig noted it simply does not apply to requests for declaratory relief.

Follow Bruce Vielmetti on Twitter at @ProofHearsay.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Deputy violated free speech of teenage girl who posted COVID-19 scare

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