“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 Marquette County, Wis., sergeant told Cohoon’s father, according to dash-cam video obtained by The Washington Post. “Because it is causing a disturbance to the public.”
The post came down, but Cohoon’s family filed a federal lawsuit the next month against the sheriff’s office over the threat.
A federal judge recently ruled that the sheriff’s office violated the student’s right to free speech, regardless of whether she actually had covid-19. The teen could not immediately get tested, and doctors advised that an eventual negative test might have come too late, according to U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig.
In his ruling Friday in the Eastern District of Wisconsin, Ludwig said that accepting the authorities’ argument for arresting the teen, then 16 — who police claimed sowed anxiety and “panic” via her social media posts — would “gut” the protections of the First Amendment. Ludwig said those protections apply “in times of tranquility and times of strife.”
Cohoon, now 17, marveled in a brief interview Sunday at how the case “exploded.”
“I didn’t want this to happen,” she told The Post. “All I wanted to do was let people know that I was ill at the time, because I was around a bunch of other people.”
Her mother, Angela Cohoon, added, “We didn’t want to see anybody else go through this.”
The Marquette County Sheriff’s Office, the sergeant and a lawyer representing them did not respond to requests for comment Sunday. Their attorney, Samuel Hall, told the New York Times this spring — before the dash-cam footage surfaced as part of the court case — that law enforcement denied threatening Amyiah Cohoon with arrest.
Cohoon fell ill in March 2020 after traveling to Walt Disney World and Universal Studios with her high school band from Westfield, Wis., more than 60 miles north of Madison. Then a sophomore, Cohoon came down with a fever and cough, wrote Ludwig, who said the facts of the case are not in dispute.
Soon, Cohoon was having a hard time breathing, according to court records. She went to the emergency room and was diagnosed with an “acute upper respiratory infection.” Doctors said that her symptoms matched covid-19 but that she was ineligible to be tested for the virus, court documents state.
Nationwide testing shortages early in the pandemic meant that many people with symptoms resembling covid-19 were unable to get immediate confirmation of the virus.
Discharged with an inhaler and advice to isolate for two weeks, Cohoon posted about the ordeal on Instagram.
“Hey guys… sorry I’ve been on a long break. I wont be back for a while longer due to me [now] having the COVID-19 virus,” she wrote. She said she did not want attention — it was “just the truth.”
Several days later, on March 25, 2020, Cohoon went back to the hospital and tested negative for the coronavirus, the judge wrote. But doctors told her family that she should continue to isolate and that it was possible Cohoon had covid-19 and just “missed the window” for testing, Ludwig added. When the sophomore got back home, she posted another photo of herself wearing an oxygen mask, saying she was still getting “breathing treatment” but had otherwise recovered from the coronavirus.
The post sparked calls to the local health department as well as the Westfield School District, court documents say, and health officials contacted the sheriff’s office in “hopes of convincing Amyiah to voluntarily remove the post,” Ludwig wrote. On the evening of March 27, 2020, Sgt. Cameron Klump showed up at the Cohoons’ home, demanding that the teen’s claims of covid-19 be taken down.
The county health department did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.
The family protested: Testing challenges were well-known, Cohoon’s father told the sergeant, according to video footage.
“People need to know that this [stuff] is going on and it doesn’t do any good when you can’t warn them, when you got a sheriff’s department threatening to throw people in jail over it,” he argued.
But the Cohoons eventually assented.
“I don’t want anyone to get in trouble,” Klump said, according to the video. “It’s just there’s a lot of parents freaking out right now.”
That same day, Westfield School District Administrator Robert Meicher appeared to criticize Cohoon in a letter to families.
“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,” Meicher wrote. “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 was the end of Cohoon’s posts about her possible covid-19 infection, the judge said.
Weighing in last week, Ludwig rejected the sheriff’s suggestion that Cohoon’s behavior was comparable to “screaming fire in a crowded movie theater.” He also said that the arguments that authorities were engaging in persuasion rather than coercion fall flat, because that ignored “the inherently chilling and coercive nature of a uniformed police officer showing up at a teenager’s home and demanding that she cease otherwise protected speech.”
Luke Berg, a lawyer with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty who represented Cohoon, celebrated the decision and told The Post that the facts of the case are “bizarre.”
“But it’s a very strong statement … that cops can’t police social media,” he said.