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Judge: Sheriff Can't Force Teen to Remove COVID Post

Deputy threatened arrests over Instagram post early in the pandemic
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 27, 2021 7:32 PM CDT
Judge: Sheriff Can't Force Teen to Remove COVID Post
The judge cited the First Amendment in a ruling about social media posts.   (Getty/zimmytws)

(Newser) – Amyiah Cohoon didn't intend to scare anyone or end up in the middle of a First Amendment court case. But after she posted three updates about her bout with COVID on social media, a sheriff's deputy showed up at her family home and told the 16-year-old to take them down or he'd start making arrests, the Washington Post reports. The Wisconsin teen's posts about beating the coronavirus were scaring people, he said. It was March 2020, and people were just learning about the disease. “It’s just there’s a lot of parents freaking out right now," the deputy said. Cohoon took the posts down, then her family sued the sheriff's department. A federal judge has backed Cohoon in the dispute.

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The sheriff's argument didn't sway District Judge Brett Ludwig. Marquette County had not yet recorded a coronavirus case, and school and health officials were receiving calls about the posts. The callers were referred to the sheriff's department. "Labeling censorship societally beneficial does not render it lawful," Ludwig wrote, per the Guardian. "If it did, nearly all censorship would evade first amendment scrutiny." The actions of the sheriff's department were a clear violation of Cohoon's rights, Ludwig said, adding that social media posts don't fall outside the protections of the First Amendment. "To the contrary, they are exactly what the First Amendment seeks to protect."

Cohoon's crime was disorderly conduct, the deputy told the teen and her parents. She'd talked about being at the hospital because she was having trouble breathing; doctors told her to isolate for two weeks. "Stay home and be safe," she implored in her third post before going home, per the New York Times. "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," Cohoon, now 17, said Sunday. A lawyer for Cohoon said the judge's decision sends "a very strong statement ... that cops can't police social media." (Read more social media stories.)

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