Hoping to crush any negative publicity surrounding the coronavirus, a school administrator in Wisconsin contacted the local sheriff’s office to complain about a student who had posted about experiencing symptoms consistent with the virus after returning from a school trip to Disney World.
The Marquette County Sheriff’s Office sent a deputy to the girl’s house who threatened her with arrest if she did not remove the post from Instagram.
After all, claimed Westfield District Administrator Bob Meicher in a letter to parents, the girl’s Instagram’s posts were only a “foolish means to get attention.”
Amyiah Cohoon, 16, a sophomore at Westfield Area High School in Westfield, ended up deleting the post out of fear of going to jail. She is now suing on the basis that her First Amendment rights were violated.
According to the lawsuit, Cohoon had traveled to Disney World in Florida on March 7 with her band classmates when the virus began prompting shutdowns across the country, which forced the students to cut the trip short and return home to Wisconsin on March 15.
Less than a week later, Cohoon began experiencing symptoms consistent with the virus, including fever and dry cough and being unable to breathe. Her mother drove her to the emergency room on March 22 but they did not test her “due to the criteria at the time,” the lawsuit states. She was released from the hospital with an inhaler and an order to self-quarantine for 14 days. She posted the following on Instagram from the hospital:
“Hey guys… sorry I’ve been on a long break.. I wont be back for a while longer due to me no[w] having the COVID-19 virus… I don’t want the attention its just the truth… I am now in self quarantine and am not allow[e]d to leave my room and have an inhaler since they said to go home… best of wishes. love you guys.”
Meanwhile, Cohoon’s mother called the band teacher to inform him that other students might possibly have been stricken by the virus, leaving a voice message when nobody answered the phone.
On March 25, her symptoms worsened and an ambulance transported her back to the emergency room where she was tested for the virus which came out negative. However, doctors told her she likely has the virus because one out of three patients have tested negative for the virus.
After returning home that day, she posted the following on Instagram:
“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.”
Meanwhile, Westfield District Administrator Bob Meicher was contacting the Marquette County Sheriff’s Office over the Instagram post. According to the lawsuit:
During the evening on March 27, Defendant Patrol Sergeant Cameron Klump from the Marquette County Sheriff’s office came to the Cohoons’ home. Amyiah answered the door, and Sergeant Klump said he needed to speak with her father.
After Mr. Cohoon came outside, Sergeant Klump explained that the school “superintendent” had complained to Defendant Sheriff Joseph Konrath about one of Amyiah’s Instagram posts. Sergeant Klump showed Mr. Cohoon a screenshot of Amyiah’s third Instagram post (described in paragraph 33 above). A true and accurate copy of the cropped screenshot Sergeant Klump showed Mr. Cohoon is attached hereto as Exhibit 5.
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.”
Sergeant Klump’s incident report, a true and accurate copy of which is attached hereto as Exhibit 6, confirms Defendants’ unlawful actions. Klump’s report explains that “Sheriff Konrath advised me he wished for me to respond to the residence and have the post removed from her social media.” Ex. 5 at 4. The 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.” Ex. 5 at 5.
Sergeant Klump stated that Sheriff Konrath wanted the post removed because there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the county at that time.
But neither Klump, nor Konrath, nor anyone from the school district had contacted Amyiah or the Cohoons to discuss Amyiah’s symptoms or to learn what the doctors who treated Amyiah had told the Cohoons, even though the Cohoons had notified both the principal and band teacher about Amyiah’s symptoms.
Mr. Cohoon offered to show Sergeant Klump the documents they received from the doctors at Divine Savior indicating that Amyiah’s symptoms were consistent with COVID-19, but Sergeant Klump stated that he was not there to gather information, but to complete Sheriff’s Konrath’s orders.
Mr. Cohoon responded that Sheriff Konrath and Sergeant Klump had no right to demand that Amyiah remove her Instagram post, that he would refuse the order if it were his post, but that he would allow Amyiah to decide for herself.
Mr. Cohoon then called Amyiah back outside. He told her that Sergeant Klump was going to ask her to remove one of her Instagram posts. Mr. Cohoon told Amyiah that she did not have to remove the post if she did not want to, but that it was up to her.
Sergeant Klump then showed Amyiah the screenshot of her post and told her that, if she did not remove it, he had orders from the Sheriff to begin issuing citations for disorderly conduct and taking people to jail.
Out of fear that Sergeant Klump would follow through on his threat to arrest and jail her or her parents, Amyiah agreed to delete the post. She showed Sergeant Klump her Instagram account on her phone as proof that she had removed it.
Sergeant Klump then left the Cohoons’ home.
After Sergeant Klump left, out of an abundance of caution and fear, Amyiah also deleted her first Instagram post (see paragraph 24 above), but not until saving a screenshot of it.
Later that evening, the Cohoons discovered that, earlier in the day, Westfield District Administrator Bob Meicher had sent an update to families in the school district that included a statement about Amyiah’s posts. A true and accurate copy of that update is attached hereto as Exhibit 7. –
Administrator Meicher’s update stated that, “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. 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. I asked her to prepare a short statement for the purpose of this update. I’ve pasted it below.”
Although this statement does not name Amyiah or the Cohoons, most of Amyiah’s teachers and classmates would have been aware that it was about her, given that many of them saw Amyiah’s Instagram posts.
Sheriff Konrath’s and Sergeant Klump’s threats to cite and arrest Amyiah for posting about her experience are especially troubling in light of Meicher’s statements accusing Amyiah of not being truthful and engaging in “a foolish means to get attention.” With the threats of law enforcement looming over her head, Amyiah has felt unable to respond on social media to Meicher’s allegations, and she is now afraid of returning to school for fear of what her classmates and teachers will think about her.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty filed the lawsuit Thursday on behalf of Cohoon. The lawsuit, which can be read here, is asking for “nominal damages.”