Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Wisconsin County Officials Attempt to Censor Speech about COVID-19

On 30 March, 2020, the Public Health Department of Rusk County, Wisconsin, issued a statement under the name of the County Sheriff and Dawn Brost, RN, of Rusk County Public Health. The statement appears to be a direct attack on First Amendment rights.  From the Rusk County web page:
The Rusk County Sheriff’s Office and Public Health Department take coronavirus infection (COVID-19) seriously. We are informing the public that making false statements and spreading rumors about COVID-19 is a crime and will be prosecuted.
No Wisconsin statute is cited. Wisconsin statutes have provision for false statements or claims by a health care provider.  A search did not find a statute for false statements by a member of the public, not for spreading rumors.

Here is an image of the entire statement:

The problem with prosecuting people for spreading rumors or making false statements is it is not clear who gets to decide what is false or not.

There are often diametrically opposed statements made by different media, which cannot both be true.

The First Amendment protects speech, very widely. There are exceptions for inciting riots, slander, defamation, or inciting the violent overthrow of the government. There is a provision for disorderly conduct.

None of that seems to apply to the Rusk County threat about false statements and rumors.

The First and Second Amendments are tied tightly together. Openly carrying a firearm is strong, symbolic, political speech. It is difficult to protect your right to freedom of speech and the press, if you have no right to bear arms, or are not allowed to protect the property necessary to spread your message.

The Wisconsin Constitution has a very strong provision protecting the right to keep and bear arms in Section 25:
Right to keep and bear arms. Section 25. [As created Nov. 1998] The people have the right to keep and bear arms for security, defense, hunting, recreation or any other lawful purpose. [1995 J.R. 27, 1997 J.R. 21, vote Nov. 1998]
 It also has a very strong protection for freedom of speech, in Section 2:
Free speech; libel. Section 3. Every person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right, and no laws shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press. In all criminal prosecutions or indictments for libel, the truth may be given in evidence, and if it shall appear to the jury that the matter charged as libelous be true, and was published with good motives and for justifiable ends, the party shall be acquitted; and the jury shall have the right to determine the law and the fact.
The threat from Rusk County to prosecute for false statements and rumors about COVID-19 appears to be in direct contradiction to both the United States Constitution, and the Wisconsin State Constitution.

 On 28 January, 2020, the Rusk County Board of Supervisors voted, unanimously, not to make Rusk County into a Second Amendment Sanctuary County.

The Internet is full of rumors about COVID-19. The media is full of contradictory rumors about the virus, its lethality, origin, infectious qualities, and possible treatments.

Rusk County Health Department was contacted;  Dawn Brost was not available, and has not returned the phone call at this time.

The Sheriff's office was contacted; Sheriff Wallace has not returned the phone call at this time. 

The statement may be an example of poor wording. At minimum, a citation of a Wisconsin statute would do much to eliminate confusion.

©2020 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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