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Lawsuit: Sheriff Threatened to Jail Teen for Posting on Instagram That She Had Coronavirus

lawsuit filed in federal court alleges that local law enforcement officers threatened to arrest and imprison a teen and her parents for disorderly conduct unless she removed a series of social media posts warning others that she had been infected with what she believed was the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The complaint, filed on behalf of 16-year-old Amyiah Cohoon Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, claims that the Marquette County sheriff’s threat violated her constitutional right to free speech.

According to the complaint, after returning from a school trip to Orlando with the Westfield Area High School band on March 15, Cohoon began feeling ill and having difficulty breathing. She went to the hospital but was told she could not be tested for COVID-19 due to stringent testing requirements, but was diagnosed with an “acute upper respiratory infection, unspecified,” prescribed an inhaler, and told to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Doctors also gave Cohoon’s parents a work release form stating that she had “symptoms consistent with COVID-19.”

Believing Amyiah had contracted COVID-19, her parents contacted the Westfield band teacher to “notify her about Amyiah’s condition so that the school could warn other families with students on the trip that Amyiah may have contracted COVID-19.” They later informed the school principal as well.

Amiyah posted about her illness on Instagram three times, saying she would be out of school for a while due to “having the COVID-19.” After her symptoms worsened and she returned to the hospital she posted another photo showing her in a hospital bed with the caption “Winning the fight with Covid-19.”

Amyiah was tested for COVID-19 on March 25. Although the test came back negative, doctors said she likely had the disease but missed the window for testing positive, according to the complaint.

On March 27, Sergeant Cameron Klump of the Marquette County Sheriff’s office went to the Cohoon residence and told them his office had received a complaint from the school’s superintendent about Amyiah’s posts, demanding she delete the pictures.

“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 complaint stated.

Klump’s incident report also stated that “Sheriff [Joseph] Konrath advised me he wished for me to respond to the residence and have the post removed from her social media,” and 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.”

When the Cohoon’s offered to show Klump documentation from the hospital, he declined, saying he was only there to complete the sheriff’s orders, the complaint stated.

Earlier that day, a school administrator sent an email to parents saying, “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” and “there is NO truth to this.”

“This was a foolish means to get attention and the source of the rumor has been addressed,” the message, which is still on the district’s website, stated. “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.”

The lawsuit seeks nominal damages and an injunction against the Cohoon’s being arrested over the Instagram posts.

Sam Hall, an attorney for the sheriff, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Amyiah’s posts claiming she had COVID-19 despite a negative test “caused distress and panic” among the district’s parents.

“This case is nothing more than a 2020 version of screaming fire in a crowded theater,” he said, invoking an often misunderstood reference to speech not protected by the Constitution.

“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.”

[image via YouTube screengrab]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.