A Wisconsin high school student on Friday won a federal lawsuit she brought against a sheriff who threatened her with jail time early in the COVID-19 pandemic if she didn’t remove social media posts saying she had the virus.
U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig ruled that Amiyah Cohoon’s constitutional right to free speech was violated when a Marquette County sheriff’s deputy in March 2020 demanded the Oxford teenager take down her Instagram posts post or face arrest.
“The First Amendment is not a game setting for the government to toggle off and on,” the judge wrote. “It applies in times of tranquility and times of strife.”
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed the lawsuit against Marquette County Sheriff Joseph Konrath and a patrol sergeant. Luke Berg, the attorney who filed the case, said “this decision underscores that First Amendment rights cannot be dispatched with in an emergency. More importantly, law enforcement has no business trying to regulate the social media posts of local teenagers.”
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Samuel Hall, attorney for the sheriff and the Marquette County Sheriff’s Department, said at the time the lawsuit was filed that the girl’s messages “caused distress and panic within the school system and law enforcement acted at the request of school health officials in a good faith effort to avoid unfounded panic.”
Hall had not returned a message Friday seeking comment on the ruling.
The judge said the Sheriff’s Office defense that it was acting in the greater good of the community does not insulate it.
“Demanding a 16-year-old remove protected speech from her Instagram account is a First Amendment violation,” the judge said.
Cohoon, who was a sophomore in the Westfield School District in Marquette County last year, had a severe respiratory illness with symptoms matching those of COVID-19 during a spring break trip to Florida, the lawsuit said. She tested negative, but her attorney said that doctors told the girl’s family that she likely had the virus but missed the window for testing positive.
The girl posted about her experience on March 26, 2020. Her first Instagram post showed her looking out a window with the message, “i wont be back for a while longer due to me ... having the COVID-19 virus....I dont want the attention it’s just the truth.”
A second post, showing her in a hospital bed hooked up to what appears to be an oxygen mask, included the caption, “Winning the fight with Covid-19.” It was that post that the sheriff’s deputy had a screen shot of and demanded she remove, according to her attorney.
At the time, Marquette County had had just two confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of Friday, it has had 1,652 confirmed cases and 24 deaths, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
'Every aspect of our lives has been turned on its head': The COVID-19 pandemic one year on
A year into a once-in-a-century pandemic, Madison and Wisconsin continue to grapple with a virus that's killed thousands, destroyed businesses, upended school and changed nearly all aspects of everyday life.
It's been 12 months of grief, shutdowns, reopenings, protective measures, partisan fighting, lawsuits and loss. And now, hope.
“Truly every aspect of our lives has been turned on its head,” said Malia Jones, a UW-Madison infectious disease epidemiologist.
"If you would have told me last March that we'd be virtual for a year, I'd never, ever would have believed it."
"We’re used to taking whatever comes through the door," said nurse Maria Hanson, who started journaling about the pandemic soon after treating the patient.
"It’s a risk vs. reward thing and I risk my life to save others," said Brandon Jones, who always worried about bringing the virus home to his wife and two kids.
“Usually a funeral is a major step in understanding that a life was lived and the person is now gone,” he said. “If families don’t get that, it’s just really hard.”
Rev. Marcus Allen knew what bringing everyone together could do for their spiritual and mental health. But each time he considered reopening the church, COVID-19 cases surged.
"I was getting my work done from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. every day," she said.
“Reporting the death counts out day after day was draining,” she said. “It felt like I was announcing a funeral every day.”
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