During the COVID-19 pandemic, state and local governments are taking many steps to protect the health and safety of their residents. There is broad--and increasing--debate over the wisdom of some of these measures. No one can deny the unprecedented nature of the threat from this novel coronavirus, but it is equally true that Americans do not surrender all their First Amendment liberties during times of disaster or distress. Indeed, there are established bodies of law that apply to government restrictions on free speech and religious liberties, even during a public health crisis. This Friday on a Zoom webinar for RNLA members, two experts--Rick Esenberg and Casey Mattox--will address restrictions on free speech and religious liberty during the current pandemic.
Rick Esenberg is the President and General Counsel of Wisconsin Institute for Life and Liberty, which recently sued the Marquette County, Wisconsin, sheriff for threatening to arrest a teenage girl and her family for her factual Instagram posts regarding her likely infection with COVID-19:
The First Amendment’s protection of speech, especially online speech, is as vital as ever during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The unprecedented stay-at-home orders throughout the nation have made social media one of the few outlets people have to communicate with friends and family. This case is about preserving the right to share our experiences with each other during this difficult time. A high school student who had a scare with COVID-19 posted about her experience on Instagram, and a few days later, a deputy sheriff showed up at her home and demanded that she remove her post or be cited for disorderly conduct, arrested, and jailed. The offending post? A picture of the student, while she was hospitalized for what doctors told her was likely COVID-19, with the caption, “I am still on breathing treatment but have beaten the coronavirus. Stay home and be safe.” The sheriff’s actions blatantly violated the First Amendment, and Plaintiff is entitled to recognition of that fact.
Casey Mattox is the Vice President for Legal and Judicial Strategy at Americans for Prosperity. He recently tweeted:
First Amendment rights are being politicized on twitter and media. That's wrong. Here is a diverse coalition of civil liberties organizations defending free expression. It may look a little different in a pandemic, but the 1st A still applies. https://t.co/qZjXriCIvz— Casey Mattox (@CaseyMattox_) April 22, 2020
The First Amendment has not been suspended. But neither has your obligation to your fellow man. Or to not be an idiot. There are ways to engage in constitutionally protected activity without jeopardizing others. That you have freedom doesn't mean every exercise of it is prudent.— Casey Mattox (@CaseyMattox_) April 20, 2020
No emergency order suspending core constitutional freedoms should last longer than 1 week. They can be reissued as needed. But the burden is on the government to justify an order that we not worship/speak/assemble as we wish. Governors should have to continually bear that burden.— Casey Mattox (@CaseyMattox_) April 16, 2020
Thanks to these two leaders, and many others like RNLA Co-Chair Harmeet Dhillon, for standing up for Americans' important First Amendment rights even while recognizing the precautions that are necessary during this unprecedented public health challenge.