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.

NEW:

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.”

Aug. 6

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.”

Aug. 5

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.

Aug. 4

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.'"

Aug. 3

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.

July 29

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. 

July 28

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.”

July 27

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.

July 24

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.

July 23

“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.

July 22

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.

July 21

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.

 

July 20

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.

July 17

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.

July 16

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.

July 15

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.” 

July 14

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."

July 13

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.  

July 10

Coronavirus hit street newspapers especially hard, forcing them to disappear in many cities. Fortunately, some are starting to come back.

As The Seattle Times’ Facebook page notes, one street paper that has resumed publishing is Seattle’s Real Change, which is sold by homeless people who work as paid vendors.

July 9

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.

July 8

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.  

July 7

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.

July 6

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.

July 3

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.”

July 2

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.

July 1

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.

June 30

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.

June 29

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.

June 26

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. 

June 25

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).”

June 24

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.

June 23

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.”

June 22

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.

June 19

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.

June 18

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."

June 17

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.

June 16

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.”

June 15

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.”

June 12

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.”

June 11

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.

June 10

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.”

June 9

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.

June 8

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. 

June 5

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.”

June 4

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.

June 3

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.

June 2

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.

June 1

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.

May 29

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.”

May 28

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.

May 27

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.”

May 26

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.”

May 22

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.  

May 21

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.

May 20

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,” Forbes reported. 

May 19

An unusual lawsuit by a small nonprofit in Washington state claims that Fox News and its parent company enjoy no First Amendment protection – nor does any cable broadcaster if its productions air over third-party cable operators.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, supporting Fox News, reports that the group known as WASHLITE is suing Fox for allegedly downplaying the coronavirus threat when it first emerged. The group says some Fox News watchers failed to protect themselves from the virus because of the coverage and became sick as a result, thereby putting Fox in violation of the state’s consumer-protection laws.

“The plaintiff is misstating the law and doing so in such a way that would impair speech and press protections for everyone,” the Reporters Committee maintains.

May 18

The Voice of America has a Press Freedom watch page. 

“Voice of America is committed to press freedom around the world,” the page says. “Many VOA journalists work in countries that restrain free speech and independent journalism. In those countries, local journalists and news media often face threats or other repercussions yet succeed in delivering news and vital information. This page strives to tell their stories.” 

Among the offerings today are articles on “Risk and Reporting at the Pandemic’s Front Line” and “Another Gutsy Philippine Media Outlet Fights to Keep Its Operating License.”

VOA describes itself as “the largest U.S. international broadcaster, providing news and information in more than 40 languages to an estimated weekly audience of more than 280 million people.”

May 15

What did the World Health Organization tell U.S. health officials about the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic as it began in China? That’s the focus of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed this month, the Washington Examiner reports. 

The conservative group Judicial Watch filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of the Daily Caller News Foundation. Judicial Watch said the lawsuit arose after the Department of Health and Human Services failed to respond to an FOIA request.

The request is for “correspondence of Drs. Anthony Fauci and H. Clifford Lane, the two top health officials at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,” the Examiner wrote, as well as “memos, and reports regarding the WHO; Wuhan, the city in China where the coronavirus outbreak began; and the Chinese government.”

May 14

Memphis is excluding journalist Wendi Thomas from its media advisory list for Covid-19 virtual press conferences and other city information “in retaliation for her coverage,” the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reports.

The free-press group is suing the city to get her added.

Thomas is founder, editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, which has also filed suit. Although RCFP says the city gave no reason for its refusal of access, past email exchanges show that a communications official complained that Thomas’s reporting on Mayor Jim Strickland was “not objective.”

“MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is doing important investigative reporting about issues affecting the residents of Memphis, and it is flatly unconstitutional for the city to disrupt and interfere with Ms. Thomas’s ability to gather and report the news because it doesn’t like the content of her reporting,” said Paul McAdoo, an attorney for the Reporters Committee. “After multiple attempts to get the city and its officials to stop its retaliatory exclusion of Ms. Thomas from the media advisory list, she has been left with no choice but to ask a federal district court to enforce her rights under the First Amendment and Tennessee Constitution,” he added.

May 13

A dispute over how Florida is reporting Covid-19 deaths has erupted. The Miami Herald reported that a list of statewide coronavirus fatalities released May 6 was “riddled with holes.”

At issue is a discrepancy between deaths as reported by the state Department of Health and those recorded by the Medical Examiners Commission. News reports say that a month ago, the medical examiners’ numbers were 10% higher than the health department’s.

The Herald wrote: “‘The Department of Health is telling the medical examiners it cannot release this information that the medical examiners have been releasing on a regular basis,’ said Barbara Petersen, president emeritus of the First Amendment Foundation, an open-government watchdog in Tallahassee.”

In an editorial, The Palm Beach Post alleged: “The most recent records in question were previously being released by the Medical Examiners Commission until the [Gov. Ron] DeSantis administration ordered them to stop and redact certain information about the deaths.”

May 12

Nieman Reports outlines four ways that local journalism might be saved from extinction by the coronavirus pandemic.

One involves seeking more money from philanthropies. Another, possibly controversial, suggests that a tax on ads that appear on search platforms could raise funds for news outlets, especially those that are struggling.

The article echoes concerns about collapsing revenue for local journalism expressed by Free Speech Center Director Ken Paulson in his April 12 column. 

May 11

Student journalists face resistance to gaining access to what should be open campus records and meetings during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Student Press Law Center reports. 

Among things that student reporters are trying to learn is whether any students who tested positive for coronavirus had recently been on campus. SPLC says college administrators resist providing such information.

May 8

A federal judge has upheld California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-home order barring assembly in houses of worship, ABC-TV 7 News reported in Los Angeles.

Ruling in Sacramento, Judge John Mendez said the ban did not violate the First Amendment freedoms of religion and assembly, as claimed by the Cross Culture Christian Center in Lodi.

Countering the church’s argument that the order unconstitutionally prohibited religious gatherings while exempting liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries and others, Mendez said such businesses were open not for purposes of assembly but for individuals to purchase items.

The judge’s ruling, reported ABC-TV 7, said restaurants, concert venues, movie theaters and sports arenas were also ordered shut because, like churches, they involve large gatherings that could further the spread of the virus.

May 7

Churches remain in the Covid-19 First Amendment spotlight. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has let stand Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s prohibition of in-person, in-house church services, reports the Louisville Courier Journal. 

However, the appeals-court panel also said the state could not prevent the Maryville Baptist Church from conducting drive-in services.

"The breadth of the ban on religious services, together with a haven for numerous secular exceptions, should give pause to anyone who prizes religious freedom," the judges wrote. "But it’s not always easy to decide what is Caesar’s and what is God’s and that’s assuredly true in the context of a pandemic." 

May 6

Yes, even petition, perhaps the least-appreciated freedom of the five guaranteed by the First Amendment, has caught the coronavirus.

The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that campaigns to put several initiatives on the November ballot in Ohio are at a standstill. The referenda efforts involve recreational marijuana, voting rights, a minimum-wage increase, and others.

“Ballot initiative efforts involve armies of signature collectors – often paid – stationed on city street corners, outside libraries and on festival grounds,” the article notes. “They walk up to strangers, speak with them about the petition and share clipboards and pens.”

Of course all of that is risky in a pandemic.

May 5

In the Covid-19 pandemic, “Zoom and its counterparts have become the new electronic amplifier of preference,” writes Ronald K.L. Collins on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education website. And what follows those and all other new communications advances?

Censorship. But why?

“The answer has to do with the fact that as a new mode of communication becomes more effective, it also becomes more powerful,” Collins writes.

May 1

The newsmagazine The Week looks ahead at the kinds of First Amendment lawsuits that could emerge once the virus crisis abates.

“The First Amendment protects our freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition, and at least two of those could easily be the subject of post-pandemic lawsuits,” The Week says.

The article says some of the First Amendment litigation could go clear up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

April 30

In Florida, reports the Tampa Bay Times, the state Medical Examiners Commission was regularly releasing lists of Covid-19 deaths – until it became apparent that in some instances its numbers exceeded those of the Florida Department of Health.

So state officials stepped in, saying such lists must be reviewed and possibly redacted. The battle over public information continues.

April 29

HIPAA – the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act – has for some time been something of a hindrance to journalists trying to report on a range of health-related news stories.

HIPAA privacy regulations are intended “to assure that individuals’ health information is properly protected while allowing the flow of health information needed to provide and promote high quality health care and to protect the public’s health and well being,” the act says.

Which sounds good, but in practice it has often meant that, in the name of privacy, some state and local government agencies mistakenly believe they are barred from disclosing important public information in circumstances involving deaths, injuries or illnesses. In Chicago in 2003, for instance, “the press had a difficult time reporting on a deadly porch collapse in late June 2003 because hospitals refused to disclose routine information about the victims,” as this Freedom Forum Institute article says.

Now in the Covid-19 crisis, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press notes that “Reporters and news organizations seeking information related to the COVID-19 pandemic have frequently been told by government agencies and officials, as well as private entities in the health care system (such as nursing homes), that HIPAA prevents them from releasing certain information. But HIPAA’s applicability and scope are often misunderstood, resulting in the public being deprived of important information about the pandemic, including state and local governments’ preparedness and responses.”

RCFP has just published this Journalists’ guide to HIPAA during the COVID-19 health crisis to help journalists navigate questions of what is and isn’t protected health information.

April 28

In Arizona, First Amendment experts say the state is unlawfully keeping some Covid-19 information secret.

The information includes statistics and the names and locations of long-term care facilities and prisons that have positive coronavirus cases.

TV station Arizona 15 (ABC) reports. 

April 27

An analysis by the Pew Research Center finds that only 10 states prohibit all in-person religious services and gatherings “in any form.”

See a map showing where your state stands in Pew’s analysis. 

One of the 10 states is California, where Pew reports a federal judge last week rejected the request of a group of churches to conduct in-person worship. The churches argued that the state’s ban violated their First Amendment religious freedom.

April 24

The struggle between religious liberties and public health continues in Chattanooga, Tenn., where two more lawsuits have been filed claiming First Amendment violations.

At issue are Mayor Andy Berke’s temporary ban on drive-in church services. Berke has since rescinded the ban.

April 23

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has produced a set of resources that outline “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 RCFP resources delve into court access, public records and meetings, and the effect of social distancing and stay-at-home orders on newsgathering.

April 22

NYPD officers confiscated an aerial news photographer’s drone on April 15 as he tried to photograph mass burials of COVID-19 victim’s on Hart Island, Gothamist reports.

George Steinmetz has an FAA drone license, the outlet said, and has shot for National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine.

"Mickey Osterreicher, the general counsel f