At the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, we’re tracking recent developments involving how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting our First Amendment-guaranteed freedoms of press, speech, assembly, religion and petition.
Our nation often takes our free press for granted. It’s times like these when we realize how critical trustworthy news reporting is at both the national and local levels, on every possible platform. Sadly, newspapers and news sites are particularly vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19, as Free Speech Center Director Ken Paulson explains in this column.
A big evangelical church on Capitol Hill is the first in D.C. to sue the District of Columbia over Covid-19 restrictions, The Washington Post reports.
Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s complaint is that by prohibiting religious services but permitting large anti-racism demonstrations, the city is violating the First Amendment.
“The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, asks for the right to meet outdoors,” the Post wrote. “It notes that (Mayor Muriel) Bowser appeared at a huge anti-racism rally in June, that the city police have been assigned to such events and that her office has not enforced its own ban on outdoor gatherings of more than 50 people.”
The last of the lawsuits reported here in April against Chattanooga and its mayor involving coronavirus restrictions has been dismissed, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports.
The city's shutdown actions infringed religious liberty, according to the lawsuit.
Idaho is all over the place when it comes to telling the public about Covid-19 in public schools.
The Associated Press reports on an Idaho Statesman investigation that found some school districts “notify the public of each case in each school, while others only provide that information at the district level. Others don't track coronavirus cases at all, instead relying on the local health department to do it.”
At Montana State University, students’ First Amendment concerns about a Covid-tracing policy induced the campus to revise it, according to Campus Reform.
The policy required that lists of all people attending meetings on campus be given to the administration, “even in instances where no students tested positive for COVID-19,” the site reported.
Montana State relaxed the policy after a letter from FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, expressed concern “about the threat posed to freedom of expression and freedom of association.”
The federal government has issued a “playbook” for the rollout of an expected or at least hoped-for Covid-19 vaccine in the coming months. Poynter examines the playbook and what journalists need to start doing now.
“The playbook is loaded with details you have not seen or heard before and it is really important for journalists to start to learn how a vaccination program might unfold. You will be vitally important to its success,” Poynter writes.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, scientific fact-checking is in high demand, Poynter reports.
“Many fact-checkers have refocused their work almost exclusively on coronavirus news, making a dent in the unprecedented levels of misinformation,” the article says.
Journalists covering the presidential campaigns are having to rethink their jobs, according to The Associated Press, as published in USA TODAY.
One reporter, for example, has a “no-diner rule.”
A statewide tracker of Covid-19 cases in Tennessee’s public schools has been delayed, Chattanooga’s Times Free Press reports.
“Technical difficulties with processing data across a number of school districts” is holding back the debut of a data dashboard that will show how many active cases each school has, according to the Tennessee Education Commission.
Tennessee has gone back and forth on whether it would release such information, at one point saying privacy concerns prevented such disclosures, and then when that proved untrue, saying it would indeed share the data with the public.
The Online News Association offers a “curated community guide” to Covid-19 resources.
“These are difficult times in the world and the digital journalism community is needed more than ever. ONA is offering support to the journalism community among the uncertainty we are all facing.”
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allowed Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive order banning some public gatherings to stand, reports Law360.
The state Republican Party had contended that the order privileged religious worship while placing a burden on political assemblies – essentially violating the First Amendment’s free-speech clause and giving preference to the clause protecting free exercise of religion.
“Pritzker's executive order permissibly accommodates religious activities, the three-judge panel held,” Law360 said.
Amid the pandemic, “service journalism” is on the upswing, Nieman Lab reports. That’s reporting that gives you advice you can act on, providing guidance on important things – such as how to wear a face mask.
Coronavirus continues to cause closures, layoffs, furloughs and other cutbacks in American newsrooms. Poynter has the latest list.
As thoughts, hopes and prayers turn toward potential Covid-19 vaccines in the works, a medical ethicist examines the matter of mandates vs. First Amendment religious liberty.
“Twenty-one states have religious freedom laws prohibiting even minimal interference with residents' right to practice their faith. In states with these laws, legislatures may need to amend the statute to avoid challenges and allow for universal vaccination mandates for adults,” Indiana University’s Ross D. Silverman writes on MedicalXpress.
Going out to a restaurant this weekend? Poynter notes that newspaper restaurant critics must now rate how “Covid-ready” any given joint is.
(If you go out, wear a mask until you sit down. And if diners are seated too close together, eat somewhere else!)
The Student Press Law Center describes many ways in which the pandemic makes the teaching of journalism more difficult.
“There’s just so much more interaction that happens in a journalism classroom than it does in a math classroom,” SPLC quoted journalism teacher Sarah Verpooten as saying. She teaches at Lake Central High School in St. John, Ind.
At Montana State University, campus anti-coronavirus policy requires all student organizations to give administrators lists of people who attend their events.
FIRE calls the policy “a First Amendment fumble.”
A huge civil-rights protest gathering in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28 will be an interesting experiment in freedom of assembly, pandemic-style.
WJLA-TV reports that march leaders will require face masks, temperature checks, and social distancing for all who attend the Commitment March against police brutality.
In Pennsylvania, state officials are using a 1955 law to curtail release of information on how the state is handling the coronavirus, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Under the 1955 act, the state health department has “wide authority to keep reports of contagious diseases confidential,” the newspaper wrote.
“I think a lot of people read the statute, see the word confidential, and call it a day,” the Inquirer quoted First Amendment attorney Terry Mutchler as saying. “But based on the actual language of the law itself, coupled with previous case law, there is substantial room for the department to err on the side of transparency.”
New Jersey’s closures of theaters to thwart viral spread did not violate the First Amendment, a federal judge has ruled.
Law.com reports that the U.S. district judge turned aside argument by the National Association of Theater Owners that theaters were singled out for shutdowns while some places were allowed to open.
Tennessee has been on-again, off-again about releasing information on Covid-19 cases in schools, and as of today the state has decided to clam up again, The Tennessean reports. Only figures by county, not school district, will be made public, but some counties have more than one school district.
Gov. Bill Lee and other officials say the HIPAA medical-privacy law prevents health data from being released, but as WPLN points out, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department says HIPAA doesn't cover elementary or secondary schools.
Some public colleges are telling RAs not to speak to journalists, even student journalists, as students return to campuses amid worries about coronavirus prevention, FIRE reports.
So far the reports have come in from Louisiana State University and the University of Missouri. “Public institutions cannot prohibit student employees from speaking to the media entirely,” FIRE writes.
International reporting is suffering badly in the pandemic, Poynter reports.
“International reporting has been beleaguered for years,” the article said, and “COVID-19 has only accelerated that deterioration.”
Apparently beachgoers are NOT causing increases in Covid-19 cases. Yet newspapers and other media keep running photos of crowded beaches, implying they’re hot spots.
NiemanLab notes that “crowded beach photos have become a staple for news outlets illustrating all kinds of things that aren’t necessarily related to beaches — rising caseloads and super-spreader events, people losing patience with social distancing, etc.”
Two Georgia high schoolers were suspended after posting photos of a crowded school hallway amid pandemic fears, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported.
FIRE said “school administrators had allegedly also announced over the intercom system that any student found to be publicly critiquing the school’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic would be punished.”
Coronavirus kills newspapers too.
Poynter reports that more than 50 local newsrooms across the country have closed owing to the pandemic.
Three Christian schools in Oregon have filed a lawsuit asking “why the coronavirus would spread more quickly at a ‘faith-based gathering,’ or a Christian elementary or high school, than in an Oregon State University classroom,” The Oregonian reports.
The suit against Gov. Kate Brown argues that “her executive orders that prohibit faith-based gatherings of more than 25 people due to the coronavirus pandemic are unconstitutional, particularly when universities may open if they comply with physical distancing, mask-wearing and other safety measures,” the Portland newspaper said.
Many school districts and health departments around the nation say they don't think they can release information about any Covid-19 cases found in schools, even though they can, reports USA TODAY.
Some school and health officials "have pointed to medical and educational privacy laws as reasons to withhold even basic counts of coronavirus cases. That’s despite federal guidance saying those laws aren’t barriers to disclosure and legal experts who note that schools can share information as long as they don’t identify individuals," the newspaper writes.
No religious exemptions from coronavirus restrictions for houses of worship – that’s the view of 79% of American adults in a new Pew survey.
“On this question, Americans seem to align with two recent Supreme Court orders, which rejected lawsuits claiming that state restrictions on worship violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom,” Pew reported. “At the same time, many state and local governments have carved out exemptions for religious institutions from pandemic-related restrictions.”
Constitutional-law expert Erwin Chemerinsky offers an overview of Covid-related legal cases, including some implicating the First Amendment, on the ABA Journal website.
Chemerinsky writes that “in light of the large number of challenges to government restrictions that have been filed in the lower courts, it is inevitable that some of these will make their way to the Supreme Court in the months ahead.”
In an about-face for Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee says the state will make information about Covid-19 in schools public after all, radio station WPLN reports.
How exactly disclosures of coronavirus tracking in schools will work, given privacy concerns, is not yet clear, but Lee said a plan was in the works and could be announced in a week.
Despite Ohio’s Covid-19 restrictions, candidates trying to get on the ballot in November must collect petition signatures in person, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.
Courthouse News Service reported that two independent candidates who filed suit claimed that the Covid-19 orders made it impossible for them to gather signatures, as Ohio law requires. But U.S. District Judge James Graham held earlier, and the 6th Circuit has now agreed, that “The First Amendment exemption is not confined to circulators. It applies to all individuals, electors included. If electors should wish to sign a petition, they may. The state is not prohibiting the First Amendment speech of electors.”
Courthouse News Service said that "Graham told the candidates in his dismissal that the Covid-19 restrictions, all of which were passed with First Amendment-protected speech exceptions, 'impose no significant burden on plaintiffs’ signature-gathering rights.'"
Do orders requiring masks in public violate the First Amendment? No, says the Tennessee attorney general in an opinion reported by Eugene Volokh on Reason.com.
“Even assuming that refusing to wear a face covering constituted conduct sufficient to implicate constitutional principles of free speech, a governmental mandate to wear a face covering in public during the COVID-19 pandemic would not violate the First Amendment,” Volokh writes.
Rumors, disinformation, misinformation …
Nieman Lab offers this article on making sense of the rumors, falsehoods and half-truths swirling online about coronavirus and Covid-19.
Don’t tell anyone about any Broward County school district employees who have tested positive for coronavirus, instructs a memo, as reported by the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
The memo says district employees should not even disclose that they themselves have tested positive. The teachers union president calls the order “reckless and wrong.”
Ruling 5-4 July 24, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a rural Nevada church’s request to strike down a 50-person limit on worship services as a precaution against Covid-19, the Associated Press reported via Time magazine.
The justices rejected the church's argument that the restriction was unconstitutional.
"Calvary Chapel Dayton Valley argued that the hard cap on religious gatherings was an unconstitutional violation of its parishioners’ First Amendment rights to express and exercise their beliefs," AP said.
An order by California Gov. Gavin Newsom apparently bans small-group Bible studies, among other activities, in people’s homes. The Christian Post reports that the Harvest Rock Church has filed a complaint in federal court.
Harvest Rock is based in Pasadena but has campuses all around California. Joining the complaint is the affiliated Harvest International Ministries.
“Press freedom and government transparency during COVID-19” is the title of a resource from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
RCFP “is outlining recommendations for journalists, legislators, and courts to ensure the press and public’s right of access to government information and proceedings is protected while entities take necessary steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”
The resource will be updated as matters develop.
When a vaccine against Covid-19 becomes available, could government require that you get the shot? The answer appears to be yes, according to the Albany, N.Y., Times Union.
Would First Amendment religious freedom allow for exemptions for those who object on the grounds of religious belief? The answer appears to be no.
Need a guide to fact-checking Covid-19 stories and claims? The Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors have put together a tipsheet.
“Act like a crisis communicator. Tell your audience, ‘This is what we know right now, but the situation is constantly changing,” says one item of advice to journalists covering the pandemic.
Covid-19 is devastating American newsrooms, writes Nieman Labs, reporting that “over 36,000 journalists have lost their jobs, been furloughed, or had their pay cut.”
“If the pandemic is, as some experts fear, an ‘extinction-level event,’ and the mainstream media goes the way of the dinosaur, the consequences for democracy could be dire. It would dramatically reduce journalism’s ability to deliver on its core purposes: holding authority to account, informing and empowering audiences, and reflecting a community back to itself,” Nieman Labs said.
Struggling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus, The Orlando Sentinel is behind on its rent.
The newspaper reports that its landlord has filed a lawsuit to collect three months’ unpaid rent, totaling about $370,000.
News reporters have been unsuccessfully seeking emails sent by Georgia Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey as the coronavirus pandemic broke out, Georgia Recorder reports on patch.com.
More than 40 open-records requests from CNN, The Washington Post and others have gone unanswered since March. “The requesters sought emails regarding the state's allocation of resources, Gov. Brian Kemp's April remarks about asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19, correspondence with corporate leaders and information that guided the state's reopening,” Georgia Recorder said.
Slapdash journalism is contributing to confusion about Covid-19 treatment studies, writes JAMA Network, from the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“News releases and news reports with simple, often provocative messages based on single studies have had substantial influence on medication use, the stock market, political discourse, and policy. A more informed and rational medical, political, and economic decision-making process may have occurred if attention had been given to a few recommendations,” JAMA Network says.
“News reports of single studies should be matter-of-fact and favor reporting of main outcomes and absolute risks, specify patient populations, and highlight limitations in validity and generalizability. All such reports should include a note of caution that single studies are rarely definitive.”
A new statement from a Southern Baptist group urges churches to cooperate with government efforts to stem coronavirus without giving up First Amendment religious-liberty protections.
Baptist Press reports that a July 10 statement from the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission “provides guidance to church and civic leaders regarding the effort to protect public health, particularly through the process known as contact tracing.”
BP quoted Travis Wussow of the commission as saying, “This statement of principles lays out a pathway that adheres to the First Amendment, encourages churches to play a helpful role in contact tracing and demonstrates that meeting this moment is a shared responsibility between church and state."
The Associated Press reports that a church in rural Nevada is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to suspend a 50-person limit on worship assemblies while the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers the church’s claim that virus restrictions in the state have been unevenly applied.
In an order issued June 4, Gov. Steve Sisolak permitted restaurants, casinos, bowling alleys and amusement parks to reopen at 50% capacity. But houses of worship still face a 50-person limit.
Coronavirus hit street newspapers especially hard, forcing them to disappear in many cities. Fortunately, some are starting to come back.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rendered “two contrasting state-election-law decisions” involving coronavirus and the First Amendment, Law.com reports.
In one of them, the federal appeals court found that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home order violated the First Amendment by excessively restricting ballot access.
The other case involved adjustments to signature-filing requirements by a lower federal court in Ohio.
A tale of two protests on a collision course at the Arizona state Capitol in Phoenix on July 4 – that fortunately ended peacefully.
AzCentral reports on the two converging groups, one protesting racial injustice, the other demonstrating against Covid-19 restrictions, and how it all turned out.
Six top theater chains filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the state of New Jersey yesterday, NBC News reports, asserting in federal district court that they have the right to reopen their locations.
"Plaintiffs bring this action to ensure that movie theatre [sic] are treated equally with other similarly situated places of public assembly, and in order to exercise their First Amendment rights to exhibit films of significant artistic, cultural, political and popular merit," the lawsuit says, as quoted by NBC News.
On an emergency appeal, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh turned aside a request by several Republican groups to allow political assemblies of more than 50 people, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker had levied the ban, which was challenged in federal courts before reaching Kavanaugh’s desk on July 4.
“One of the GOP arguments was that large Black Lives Matter protests are taking place, so given the First Amendment, the party events should also be allowed. Indeed, Pritzker was present at one march,” the Sun-Times said.
An Illinois judge invalidated Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s executive orders regarding Covid-19, Chicago radio station WBEZ reports.
“Judge Michael McHaney’s decision effectively voids Pritzker’s executive orders issued since April 9th, which have mandated residents stay at home, limited crowd sizes, and determined which businesses were allowed to stay open during the pandemic,” the station reported.
McHaney’s ruling stated: “The Court declares that Defendant had no Illinois constitutional authority to restrict a citizen’s movement or activities and/or forcibly close business premises.”
A union representing immigration judges has sued the Trump administration, alleging that judges are being prevented from speaking on public issues – including the health risks of keeping courts open during the pandemic.
USA Today says the immigration-court deportation caseload stands at a record high 1.1 million.
Kid Rock and others are suing Nashville for loss of income during the coronavirus pandemic, Mic.com reports.
The star’s Big Ass Honky Tonk & Rock ‘N’ Roll Steakhouse lost its beer permit for five days in June because it was serving people at the bar. The lawsuit alleges an unfair double standard regarding a lack of similar restrictions on other types of businesses and Black Lives Matter protests. “When confronted with the clear disparity in how government officials were treating restaurants/bars compared to the individuals participating in protests, both Mayor (John) Cooper and Director (Michael) Caldwell basically said these individuals have the right to peacefully assemble under the First Amendment,” the lawsuit says.
Access to courts has been one of many First Amendment issues involved in the Covid-19 pandemic. In California, the American Civil Liberties Association has gone to federal court to accuse a county court of making it unnecessarily hard for the public to attend or observe judicial proceedings, according to Law360.com.
“Kern County Superior Court should follow the example of other counties in the state by providing alternative ways for the public to access court proceedings, such as by providing publicly available call-in numbers, according to the complaint, which was filed against the local court's executive officer and other officials,” the website reported.
A shop owner in Racine, Wis., is alleging a violation of his First Amendment rights stemming from a denial of Covid-19 funds because he attended a protest.
Patch.com reports that Denis Navaratil went to Madison to join a demonstration against Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’s “Safer At Home” declaration. When Navratil applied for Racine Small Business Emergency Assistance Funding, he was twice denied.
Racine Mayor Cory Mason “confirmed that Navratil's attendance at a Madison protest was a contributing factor in denying the business emergency funding,” but not the only one, Patch.com said.
At a news conference yesterday, Arizona Gov. Douglas Ducey urged state residents to stay home as Covid-19 cases spike. Asked why he attended a rally for President Trump two days earlier, Ducey defended the rally and the 3,000 people who went, saying he didn’t want to interfere with the First Amendment freedom to assemble, Channel 12 News in Phoenix reported.
The Rhode Island town of Burrillville has declared itself a “First Amendment Sanctuary Town” in response to the governor’s executive orders concerning Covid-19, reports the Providence Journal.
On June 25 the Town Council voted 5-2 to exempt the town of about 16,000 people from Gov. Gina Raimondo’s orders “regarding social distancing, crowd size and other coronavirus-control measures,” the newspaper said.
The resolution further states the council’s “support for the Town Administration, including the Burrillville Police Department, in the exercise of its sound discretion not to enforce unconstitutional executive orders related to the Wuhan-origin Coronavirus (Covid-19).”
The Georgia Legislature is considering letting members meet via remote electronic means during pandemics or other disasters, reports The Associated Press via The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer.
A proposed bill would require that the public be able to see and hear any meetings. Voters would have to approve any change if both houses pass it.
You may recall that in April, amid pandemic worries, Gov. Andrew Cuomo essentially canceled New York’s Democratic primary. Not so fast, ruled a district judge.
On appeal the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in, as Law.com reports, and “reaffirmed the manifest importance of First Amendment speech and associational rights, even in the face of a global pandemic.”
In Nashville, The Tennessean describes how local businesses, law enforcement and activists are trying to navigate doing their work with keeping people safe.
“All Nashvillians — business owners, restaurant patrons, law enforcement and community activists — are balancing how they reopen the economy and express their First Amendment rights with how to do it safely amid the coronavirus pandemic,” the newspaper wrote.
Massive Juneteenth rallies across the country and a Trump campaign rally in Oklahoma over the next two days are occurring under the shadow of Covid-19.
In Madison, Wis., what started as an online-only gathering to commemorate the end of slavery after the Civil War has expanded into “an in-person event with social distancing and safety guidelines in place,” reports the Wisconsin State Journal.
Public-health spokeswoman Sarah Mattes said, “The goal of public health requirements and recommendations is to reduce people gathering together and providing opportunities for disease to spread,” she said. “We also understand the importance of the First Amendment. We encourage all rally or protest participants to practice social distancing and wear face coverings.”
The Trump campaign is going ahead with a populous gathering in Tulsa's BOK Center on June 20. Forbes magazine noted Vice President Mike Pence’s comment to Fox News on June 16 that “The right to peacefully assemble is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution and the president and I are very confident that we’re going to be able to restart these rallies to tell the story of what the President has done thorough these unprecedented times but also over the last three and a half years."
Pence added that alternate outdoor plans were being considered. The campaign reports that 1 million people have registered for tickets to the event in an indoor venue that holds 19,000. Campaign officials say temperatures will be taken, signed waivers required, and hand sanitizer and masks provided (though not required) to all who attend, according to KRDO-TV.
In Massachusetts, protesters demonstrating for racial justice are getting tested for Covid-19, WCVB-TV 5 reports.
At one test site, 14 positive tests came back from a total of 1,288. That’s a 1.08 percent positive rate. Gov. Charlie Baker said the state was opening up more pop-up testing sites.
"Thousands of people have been congregating in large groups over the past several weeks to exercise their First Amendment rights in the wake of the George Floyd murder. These gatherings are coinciding with reopening, meaning more and more people are moving around with each other," WCVB-TV quoted Baker as saying. "And anytime large groups of people come together, there's a risk for transmission. We certainly support people's rights to express their views peacefully, but we need to keep up our fight to slow the spread of COVID-19 here in Massachusetts."
Has coronavirus pushed courts into closed session?
First Amendment advocates say some courts “are still withholding records and shutting the press and public out of hearings,” according to Courthouse News Service.
“Three chapters of the ACLU, legal nonprofit Public Justice, and the First Amendment Coalition sent a letter [June 15] to California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, asking that the Judicial Council she chairs step in to ensure courts are not unconstitutionally barring the public from either the physical or virtual courthouse,” the news service reported.
In New York, four paramedics are suing the city fire department because they say it punished them for spotlighting coronavirus health dangers they were facing, reports AM NY.
The four EMS responders seek assurance in federal court that they will not be retaliated against again.
“Our emergency responders have been putting their lives and the lives of their families at risk, fighting on the front lines of a deadly epidemic for more than three months,” said Oren Barzilay, president of FDNY EMS Local 2507. “When the FDNY and the City of New York failed to provide them with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and accurate information about the disease, we had the right – and the responsibility – to raise our voices and tell the public about the serious threat of this insidious virus to the health and safety of all New Yorkers. That the FDNY responded with vengeance by retaliating against our members for exercising their First Amendment rights is an absolute outrage.”
Christianity Today outlines some First Amendment lessons we’ve learned in the pandemic in regard to religious freedom.
Here’s one of them: “If government restricts worship but allows activities presenting similar risks, that can amount to a religious freedom violation in two ways.”
Native American tribes are pleading for coronavirus data from the Centers for Disease Control, but are being denied, Politico reports.
The information on virus spread and testing sought by tribal epidemiologists is readily available to states.
And speaking of states, “Authorities in Michigan and Massachusetts since early spring have also resisted handing over information on testing and confirmed cases, citing privacy concerns, and refused to strike agreements with tribes on contact tracing or other surveillance, eight tribal leaders and health experts told POLITICO. In some instances, officials questioned tribes' legal standing as sovereign entities.”
In the coronavirus age, the question of who gets to exercise First Amendment freedom of assembly and who doesn’t has arisen again.
The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to Multichannel News, to support a lawsuit against the State of California by two people who want to hold a protest rally on the State Capitol grounds in Sacramento. The state has denied their request for 500 to 1,000 people to demonstrate against various aspects of California’s Covid-19 restrictions.
DOJ is “invoking the First Amendment – and the peaceful protests of George Floyd's murder – to support peaceful protest assemblies in the time of COVID-19,” the news site said.
A distressing result of Covid-19: Some newspaper offices have closed, scattering reporters and editors to work from home, possibly forever.
Poynter reports that “many news outlets are going to weigh the productivity of their journalists against the cost of office space. Those big headquarters can be replaced by smaller offices just big enough for occasional meetings and planning. Or journalists can keep doing what they’ve been doing by meeting on Zoom and using local coffee shops if in-person meetings are required.”
Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell today assailed Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and other Democratic officials for selectively allowing and restricting First Amendment activities, Roll Call reported.
“I have no criticism for the millions of Americans who peacefully demonstrated in recent days. Their cause is beyond righteous,” Roll Call quoted the Republican McConnell as saying on the Senate floor. “It is the inconsistency from leaders that has been baffling.”
“Here in the District of Columbia, the mayor celebrates massive street protests. She actually joins them herself, but on her command, churches and houses of worship remain shut,” McConnell said. He also cited inconsistently applied stay-home orders in New York and Michigan.
As elsewhere around the country, Atlanta is struggling to uphold the First Amendment freedom of assembly while protecting public safety and health amid large street demonstrations, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
The First Amendment freedom of assembly in the Covid-19 era …
Go ahead – gather and march, Massachusetts officials told demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. But please take precautions, such as wearing masks, to protect your health and that of others.
MassLive.com quoted Gov. Charlie Baker as saying on June 1: “As we combat the pandemic, we remain in a real struggle with how to carry out the bedrock principals of democracy with the best medical guidance available to fight an infectious, contagious disease.”
How – and how many – deaths are counted as owing to Covid-19 is a hotly disputed topic. Some say Florida, for instance, is fiddling with the medical data – “cooking the books,” as former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean put it.
But a fact check by PolitiFact from the Poynter Institute says that’s not what’s really going on.
Covid-19 deaths may be undercounted, PolitiFact says, but not because of data manipulation.
CNBC reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “has quietly removed some of its warnings about the coronavirus pandemic and added new language about the First Amendment to its guidance on reopening houses of worship.”
President Trump has demanded that states allow religious gatherings to resume. The new CDC guidelines remove warnings about the danger of coronavirus being spread by singing, chanting and recitation. They urge houses of worship to consult with state authorities about mitigation efforts and to take precautions to protect people at higher risk of catching Covid-19. The guidelines still note that “gatherings present a risk for increasing spread of COVID-19.”
“The federal government may not prescribe standards for interactions of faith communities in houses of worship, and in accordance with the First Amendment, no faith community should be asked to adopt any mitigation strategies that are more stringent than the mitigation strategies asked of similarly situated entities or activities,” the CDC says.
The First Amendment freedom of assembly has run smack-dab into the coronavirus.
In at least two previously locked-down cities where often-violent protests have erupted over the killing of George Floyd in police custody, officials are warning demonstrators to get tested for Covid-19, Fox News reported via MSN.com.
In Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, in addition to condemning the rioting, implored protesters to seek testing. “If you were out protesting last night, you probably need to go get a COVID test this week,” she said over the weekend. “There is still a pandemic in America that’s killing black and brown people at higher numbers.”
The New York Times reported that Dr. Theodore Long, who directs New York City’s contract tracing for Covid-19, also urged demonstrators to get tested and to protect themselves when assembling in large groups.
The U.S. Supreme Court has sided with California state restrictions on how many people can attend services at houses of worship amid the Covid-19 pandemic, as reported by National Public Radio and other news sources.
Voting 5-4, the justices turned down a request by the South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Vista that capacity limits be relaxed.
"Although California's guidelines place restrictions on places of worship, those restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment," Chief Justice John Roberts said in the opinion.
Meat-processing plants can be hotbeds of coronavirus contagion, which spreads into communities. In North Carolina, local health officials track Covid-19 infections in meat plants and report them to the state Department of Health and Human Services. However, “many aren’t telling the public where those outbreaks occur — and neither is the state,” reports The News & Observer reports in Raleigh.
“DHHS officials say they’re aware of more than 2,000 meatpacking workers who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. They’ve provided both the number of outbreaks and the counties where they’ve occurred. But for weeks, those officials have refused to name plants with reported outbreaks, noting that the agency lacks regulatory oversight over the facilities.”
Fox News has prevailed in a First Amendment lawsuit regarding its coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic, MediaPost and other outlets report.
The suit by WASHLITE alleged that some of the cable news channel’s commentators endangered people by downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus threat. The Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics said the allegedly false or deceptive information broke a Washington state consumer-protection law.
But King County Superior Court Judge Brian McDonald threw out the nonprofit group’s lawsuit on May 27, rejecting WASHLITE’s contention that the First Amendment doesn’t protect cable broadcasters to the same extent as other media, and that it doesn’t protect false statements.
“The law on this issue is more nuanced than suggested by WASHLITE,” MediaPost quoted McDonald as saying.
Fox News had argued that the First Amendment shielded the on-air statements of opinion by commentators Sean Hannity and Trish Regan.
Criticism of a Kansas town’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has led to an accusation that the mayor seeks to suppress public comments, The Wichita Eagle reports.
A woman in Scott City alleges in a lawsuit that Mayor Everett Green has been deleting Facebook comments “critical of the city and its agencies” and replacing them with “self-serving public announcement videos.”
Covid-19 data – what states report and don’t report – continues to be an issue, NBC News reports.
Nursing homes are one big area of dispute in regard to public information.
“In one such example, Arizona officials argued this month they should not reveal the names of facilities with outbreaks because it could give those nursing homes a stigma and could lead to discrimination against them," NBC wrote. "The argument was made in response to a lawsuit from Arizona news outlets demanding the state provide information on COVID-19 cases in nursing homes and other data.
“In Pennsylvania, state officials released such data last week after weeks of delay and in the face of significant pressure.”
Covid-19 has driven the U.S. Supreme Court to hold remote oral arguments by teleconference, with the audio broadcast live, the Freedom Forum's Nata Nott writes.
“While it might seem like a small change, it’s a huge step towards greater transparency and openness, values enshrined by the First Amendment,” Nott says.
Not only is the new access to high court arguments an advance for open government, she observes, but the justices also fittingly have taken up several First Amendment-related cases. These include matters involving robocalls, religious freedom, and the free-expression rights of electors in the Electoral College.
Open government and public access to public records have caught the secrecy virus in the pandemic.
The Associated Press reports that state and local governments are “suspending public records requirements,” saying that officials are too busy with the Covid-19 crisis to respond to requests for records.
“The result is that government secrecy has increased at the same time officials are spending billions of dollars fighting the COVID-19 disease and making major decisions affecting the health and economic livelihood of millions of Americans,” AP wrote.
A U.S. district court in Massachusetts has ruled that the Covid-19 pandemic does not automatically restrict businesses’ right to ask for debts to be paid.
Massachusetts had issued a rule that, for 90 days, phone calls or lawsuits about unpaid debts were deemed unfair and deceptive. The court found nothing unfair or deceptive in the speech of debt collectors who called consumers to demand payment.
“The May 6 opinion in ACA International v. Healey is an important reminder that, even in emergency situations, government must fully and convincingly justify regulations that infringe First Amendment rights,” <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/wlf/2020/05/19/first-amendment-prevails-in-challenge-to-emergency-regulation-of-c