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Judge rules in Wisconsin teen’s favor after sheriff threatened jail over Covid post

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Caroline Brehman/EPA</span>
Photograph: Caroline Brehman/EPA

A federal judge ruled that a Wisconsin sheriff violated free speech protections guaranteed by the first amendment when he asked a teen to remove an Instagram post about Covid-19 that “upset” local parents in March last year.

Related: How the US vaccine effort derailed and why we shouldn’t be surprised

The teen, Amyiah Cohoon, and her parents sued the sheriff’s department after a deputy threatened to arrest family members if Amyiah did not delete an Instagram post which described her experiences when possibly infected by Covid-19. She was 16 at the time.

“Labeling censorship societally beneficial does not render it lawful,” wrote Brett Ludwig, a district court judge in Milwaukee. “If it did, nearly all censorship would evade first amendment scrutiny.”

According to Ludwig’s ruling, the post, made in mid-March 2020, was the subject of “numerous” calls to health and school officials in Marquette county. At the time, the county had not yet had a case of Covid-19.

In his ruling, issued on Friday, Ludwig wrote: “Defendants may have preferred to keep Marquette county residents ignorant to the possibility of Covid-19 in their community for a while longer, so they could avoid having to field calls from concerned citizens, but that preference did not give them authority to hunt down and eradicate inconvenient Instagram posts.”

In mid-March, Amyiah went on a school band trip to theme parks in Florida. After she returned she developed a fever and dry cough and experienced difficulty breathing. She was twice taken to hospital for a severe upper respiratory infection, which doctors said was “consistent” with Covid-19, though she was not immediately tested for Covid because of strict criteria in place at the time.

A Covid test later came back negative, although doctors said it was possible Amyiah had the coronavirus but missed the testing window.

Across two Instagram posts, Amyiah described her experiences, first telling followers she was forced to “self-quarantine” due to “having the Covid-19 virus”.

Having to stay in hospital overnight because she had difficulty breathing, she posted again, this time a selfie in an oxygen mask. She told followers she had “beaten” the coronavirus and they should “be safe”.

After receiving calls from members of the public, county health officials referred the matter to the sheriff’s office. It sent a deputy to the Cohoon household, where Amyiah’s parents were told to have her remove the post or the deputy would issue disorderly person’s citations “if not start taking people to jail”.

Amyiah took the posts down. She was then the subject of an update to parents from the local school district which described her posts as baseless rumors and “a foolish means to get attention”.

Judge Ludwig compared the case to famous free speech cases involving Vietnam war protesters, and ruled that the sheriff’s department clearly violated the teen’s rights.

“Even if short and often grammatically scurrilous, social media posts do not fall outside the ambit of the first amendment,” Ludwig wrote. “To the contrary, they are exactly what the first amendment seeks to protect.”

On Monday, Amyiah told the Washington Post: “All I wanted to do was let people know that I was ill at the time, because I was around a bunch of other people.”

Luke Berg, an attorney who represented Cohoon, told the paper the case was “bizarre” but “a very strong statement … that cops can’t police social media”.

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