A lawsuit filed Thursday said a patrol sergeant following a sheriff's orders violated a Wisconsin teenager's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by telling her to remove an Instagram post, in which she said she was suffering from COVID-19 symptoms.
The patrol sergeant said he would "start taking people to jail" if the post was not deleted, according to the complaint.
Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) filed the lawsuit with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin on behalf of the teenager, identified in the complaint as a student at Westfield Area High School in Marquette County. Patrol Sergeant Cameron Klump and Sheriff Joseph Konrath of the Marquette County Sheriff's Department were both listed as defendants.
"The First Amendment's protection of speech, especially online speech, is as vital as ever during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic," the complaint said. "This case is about preserving the right to share our experiences with each other during this difficult time."
The law firm said the teenager began experiencing respiratory symptoms common among COVID-19 patients after a trip to Florida with her classmates in March. The teenager and her classmates returned home as the coronavirus pandemic began forcing states across the country to shut down. The complaint said she then developed a fever and cough within five days of arriving back home on March 15.
The teenager's parents tried to contact their daughter's teacher to alert other students of her possible COVID-19 symptoms, but their attempts were unsuccessful, the complaint said. In the days that followed, she was briefly hospitalized for her symptoms but ultimately tested negative for the virus, the law firm said.
Doctors told the teenager and her parents that "in their opinion" she "likely had COVID-19, but had missed the window for testing positive," WILL wrote in an April 3 letter to Konrath. The letter went on to say that the family "believed and still believe the doctors' diagnosis."
The teenager returned home after receiving her negative results and posted an update on Instagram that read, "I am finally home after being hospitalized for a day and a half. I am still om [sic] breathing treatment but have beaten the corona virus [sic]. Stay home and be safe."
According to the complaint, Klump arrived at the family's home on March 27 and told the teenager's parents Konrath had received a complaint from her school about the post. Klump said he had direct orders from Konrath to "demand" that she "delete this post," and if she did not, to cite the teen and/or her parents for "disorderly conduct," the complaint said.
Klump said Konrath wanted the post deleted because no cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the county at that time, the complaint said. Marquette County confirmed its first COVID-19 cases three days later.
Deputy Counsel Luke Berg, who represents the family, told Newsweek the firm was pursuing a records request with the school to determine who had filed the alleged complaint with the sheriff's department.
"It struck me as a flagrant First Amendment violation," he said of the incident. "The thought that law enforcement would be patrolling social media is terrifying, quite frankly."
Konrath did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment by publication time.
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