MADISON, Wis. – A high school sophomore sued the Marquette County sheriff Thursday after he threatened to take her or her family to jail for her post on Instagram warning that she believed she had been infected with coronavirus.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Milwaukee with the help of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, argues the jail threat violated the teen’s right to free speech. The case raises questions about First Amendment protections in the middle of a pandemic.
Amyiah Cohoon in March took a spring break trip to Florida with the Westfield Area High School band. The students returned to Wisconsin on March 15, earlier than planned, because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Four or five days later, Amyiah fell ill and eventually had trouble breathing. She was taken to hospitals in Portage and Madison over the next week. She tested negative for coronavirus on March 25, but doctors told her she likely had the illness but had been tested too late to get a positive result, according to the lawsuit.
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She posted three messages on Instagram about her situation – one saying she wouldn't be back for a while because she had coronavirus, one saying she might have to stay in the emergency room and one with her wearing an oxygen mask.
"I am still on breathing treatment but have beaten the coronavirus. Stay home and be safe," she wrote in the last post.
On March 27, Sgt. Cameron Klump visited the girl's home and told her father, Richard Cohoon, that Sheriff Joseph Konrath told him to get the latest Instagram post deleted or “start taking people to jail,” according to the lawsuit. Klump said the family could be cited for disorderly conduct as well.
Klump told Cohoon the sheriff wanted the post removed because there were no confirmed coronavirus cases in the county at the time. He said he was acting in part on a complaint from school authorities, according to the lawsuit.
Amyiah deleted the post, as well as one of the earlier ones. The third post had automatically deleted after 24 hours.
Earlier on the day of the sergeant's visit, Westfield schools District Administrator Bob Meicher sent an update to parents saying there was “no truth” to a rumor that a student had contracted coronavirus during the band trip, according to the lawsuit.
“This was a foolish means to get attention and the source of the rumor has been addressed,” he told the parents. “This rumor had caught the attention of our Public Health Department and she was involved in putting a stop to this nonsense. In times like this, the last thing we need out there is misinformation.”
Meicher did not immediately respond to questions Thursday about how the district handled the issue.
Sam Hall, an attorney for the sheriff, said the teenager "caused distress and panic" among other parents by claiming she had contracted the coronavirus despite getting a negative test result.
"This case is nothing more than a 2020 version of screaming fire in a crowded theater," he said, referring to speech that is not protected by the First Amendment.
"It is unfortunate that the plaintiff brings this lawsuit now, while law enforcement should be able to focus solely on the public health crisis that we currently face," Hall said. "However, we plan to mount an aggressive defense to this lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks what it calls “nominal damages” and an injunction barring the sheriff from arresting, jailing or citing the family for engaging in free speech.
Follow Patrick Marley on Twitter: @patrickdmarley.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Coronavirus: Wisconsin sheriff threatened jail over Instagram post