Lawsuit: ‘Cops can’t police speech’

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By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — More than a year after a sheriff’s deputy threatened Amyiah Cohoon with arrest for posting on Instagram that she had COVID-19, the Oxford, Wis. teen continues to wait for justice.

Amyiah’s lawsuit has been tied up in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin since her parents filed the complaint in April 2020.

The lawsuit alleges Sheriff Joseph Konrath and Sergeant Cameron Klump violated the girl’s First Amendment rights.

“We are waiting for the judge to rule,” said Luke Berg, deputy counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), the Milwaukee-based public interest law firm representing Amyiah and her parents.

The case, originally before Judge J.P. Stadtmueller. It was reassigned to Judge Brett Ludwig in September.

Berg had sought a temporary injunction against the Marquette County Sheriff’s Department with “the threat hanging over (the teen’s) head that she might be thrown in jail or cited for disorderly conduct.” All because Amyiah had declared on social media what her doctor’s told her was true: She probably had COVID-19.

As Empower Wisconsin reported, on March 27, 2020, Klump threatened to cite or jail Amyiah or her parents if she did not remove the social network post indicating she was recovering from COVID-19, according to the lawsuit.

Amyiah, a sophomore at Westfield High School at the time, ended up in the hospital. She tested negative for COVID-19 in Madison, but doctors noted that the 16-year-old had “symptoms consistent with COVID-19” but had missed the testing window, according to the court documents.

Recovering at home, Amyiah posted to Instagram. The post included a photo of herself at the hospital with an oxygen mask on her face.

“I am finally home after being hospitalized for a day and a half. I am still on breathing treatment but have beaten the coronavirus. Stay home and be safe,” Amyiah wrote, according to court documents.

Westfield School District officials quickly responded with a districtwide message asserting Amyiah was not telling the truth. Administrators then complained to the Marquette County Sheriff.

Klump was dispatched to the Cohoons’ home.

“Sergeant Klump stated that he had direct orders from Sheriff Konrath to demand that Amyiah delete this post, and, if she did not, to cite Amyiah and/or her parents for disorderly conduct and to ‘start taking people to jail,’” the lawsuit alleges.

“The police report also states that Klump ‘advise[d] Richard [Cohoon] that if they were not willing to take the post down, that there would be the possibility of a County Ordinance Disorderly Conduct or being arrested for Disorderly Conduct,’” court documents claim.

The family argued for their constitutional rights, but eventually took down the posts after the threat from law enforcement.

Berg said the sheriff’s department has refused to admit it was wrong in its handling of the situation.

The incident occurred just as the pandemic was breaking out in Wisconsin. It was all new territory for everybody involved. While it may be hard to imagine police officers responding the same way as the pandemic persisted and the world learned more about COVID-19, Berg said the bottom line is, “cops can’t police speech.”

Amyiah is entering her senior year in high school. Berg says the teen and her family are doing well but they are disappointed that the wheels of justice have turned so slowly. They wait for an affirmation that free speech is still protected — even in a pandemic.

“It would be a big win for our client and a big win for the First Amendment,” Berg said of a ruling in favor of the Cohoons.

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One response to “Lawsuit: ‘Cops can’t police speech’”

  1. Harold Wilkes Avatar
    Harold Wilkes

    What possible violation occurred here? Failure to panic, minor in possession of the truth with intent to distribute, crossing the double yellow of the party line, quelling fear and inciting hope? And why is this not a slam dunk for the judge? She did not shout fire in a public place, she quietly informed a select few that the fire might not be as much of a threat as had been suggested. This is pathetic.

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