U.S. District Court rules teen’s First Amendment rights were violated

U.S. District Court Judge Brett Ludwig issued a decision last week on September 24th declaring that Marquette County Sheriff Joseph Konrath’s threat to arrest a teenage girl over a social media post in March 2020 violated the teen’s First Amendment rights. 

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) filed the lawsuit against Sheriff Konrath and Sgt. Cameron Klump on behalf of Amyiah Cohoon, a teen from Oxford, whose family said they were threatened with arrest for her social media post saying that she had COVID-19. As described in the Court’s judgment document, Patrol Sergeant Klump was dispatched to Cohoon’s home to demand she remove the social media or face arrest for disorderly conduct.

U.S. District Court Judge Brett Ludwig wrote in his decision, “The First Amendment is not a game setting for the government to toggle off and on. It applies in times of tranquility and times of strife. While Defendants in this case may have believed their actions served the greater good, that belief cannot insulate them. Demanding a 16-year-old remove protected speech from her Instagram account is a First Amendment violation.”

Rick and Angela Cohoon’s daughter, Amyiah, developed a severe respiratory illness in March 2020, after a spring break trip to Florida, right when the COVID pandemic was breaking around the country. Doctors at Divine Savior Hospital in Portage informed her that her symptoms were consistent with COVID-19 but said they could not test her for the virus due to the testing criteria in effect at the time. They then discharged her with an inhaler and instructions to strictly self-quarantine for 14 days and return if her condition worsened. After her symptoms worsened, she returned to the hospital and was transferred to UW Children’s Hospital in Madison. She tested negative for the COVID-19 virus, but her doctors suggested that she likely had the virus but may have missed the window to test positive and told her keep quarantining. Amyiah posted updates to Instagram about her experience, including a photo of herself with an oxygen mask and the words, “I am finally home after being hospitalized for a day and a half. I am still on breathing treatment but have beaten the corona virus. Stay home and be safe.”

The document relates that in response to the post, the County Health Department and Westfield School District received numerous phone calls from concerned citizens. It said in hopes of convincing Amyiah to voluntarily remove the post, the County Health Department referred the matter to Sheriff Konrath, who relayed information to Sgt. Klump, advising him to visit the Cohoon residence.

On March 27th, Sgt. Klump was dispatched to the Cohoons’ home. The court document states that a microphone and dash-cam captured the audio and video of his discussion with Amyiah and her parents. It said upon exiting the house, Amyiah heard Sergeant Klump explain: “All I’m here for is to figure out what this post is about, seeing she tested negative…And we need to get it taken down.” She agreed to do so. The document says that while she went inside, Sgt. Klump threatened Mr. Cohoon: “If (the post) doesn’t come down, the Sheriff has directed me to issue disorderly conduct citations, if not start taking people to jail.”

The family later discovered that Westfield School District Superintendent Robert Meicher had sent a news update to families that said, “It was brought to my attention today that there was a rumor floating out there that one of our students contracted Covid-19 while on the band trip to Florida two weeks ago. Let me assure you there is NO truth to this. This was a foolish means to get attention and the source of the rumor has been addressed.” That statement was later removed from the school district website.

In its decision, the Court wrote: “It is possible that a Westfield administrator or Marquette County Health Department employee could have engaged in a mutually-respectful discussion with Amyiah to try to convince her to retract her post voluntarily, but that is not the method they chose. They elected, instead, to rely on the coercive power of the Sheriff’s Department…”

In a press release issued last Friday WILL explained that it issued a demand letter to Marquette County Sheriff Joseph Konrath on April 3rd, 2020, requesting an apology and acknowledgement that the Cohoons have a First Amendment right to freely express themselves on social media. Sheriff Konrath did not meet either demand at that time and WILL filed a federal lawsuit in the Eastern District of Wisconsin on April 16, 2020.

WILL Deputy Counsel, Luke Berg, said, “This decision underscores that First Amendment rights cannot be dispatched with in an emergency. More importantly, law enforcement has no business trying to regulate the social media posts of local teenagers.”

Sheriff Konrath did not comment on the decision but stated he is working with the county attorney, “to consider next steps, including a potential appeal.”