Free Expression During the Coronavirus Pandemic: Timeline
This timeline tracks the free expression concerns raised as governments and private companies enact emergency measures to manage the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Along with new regulations issued in the interest of public health come concerns about incursions on civil liberties and threats to free expression. Free speech and civil liberties advocates anticipated some of these concerns, but as regulations change and the crisis continues, new and unexpected issues arise.
This timeline is a working document that will continue to be updated as new issues concerning free expression arise during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a particular concern, please send us a censorship report via our Report Censorship form.
Threats to Free Expression During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Free Expression and the Coronavirus Pandemic NCAC begins monitoring coronavirus-related civil liberties violations. Government transparency, information control, and unchecked surveillance are among our initial concerns.
Personal Privacy Threatened As countries around the world implement digital surveillance tools to track the spread of the virus, the United States considers following suit. Civil liberties experts caution that increasing surveillance now, however, could result in more invasive tracking remaining the norm following the pandemic crisis.
Cincinnati Man Arrested for Posting Video of People Not Social Distancing Rashaan Davis is arrested by Cincinnati police for posting a YouTube video in support of a large public gathering. Police argue that Davis not only violated Ohio’s stay-at-home order, but encouraged others to violate it as well. Davis’ arrest raises concerns about the right to protest during the coronavirus pandemic.
Medical Censorship Concerns in Historical Context
Back in December, Dr. Li Wenliang faced criminal charges in China for sounding the alarm on the coronavirus. American physicians and nurses fear they are headed down a similar path, as they risk unemployment if they speak to the media about hospital equipment shortages.
Michigan Governor Bans Nonessential Advertisements
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issues an executive order banning big-box retailers from advertising nonessential items. Many advertising groups responded to Whitmer by arguing that her order violates free speech principles and will not benefit public health. Whitmer ultimately withdrew her advertisement ban at the end of the month.
Nurses and Doctors Lose Jobs for Speaking Out In New York City, many private and public hospitals have ordered workers not to speak with the media––a trend that is being followed worldwide. American physicians and nurses risk losing their jobs if they speak to the media, threatening their rights to free expression and the public’s right to access information from frontline workers. As many hospitals are affiliated with universities, this also raises questions of academic freedom.
DeSantis Aid Pressured Law Firm Not to File Public Records Suit Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s general counsel pressured members of the Miami Herald legal team to abandon their public records lawsuit, which would have forced the state to release the names of all elder-care facilities that have had a positive test for the virus. DeSantis has yet to give a legal justification for his refusal to provide the records.
China Censors Research on Coronavirus Origins According to a recently deleted post by the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, the Chinese government is requiring scientists to run their studies by the Ministry of Science and Technology. This report follows the pattern of the Chinese government’s censorship of coronavirus information.
Florida Surgeon General Removed from Coronavirus Briefing Florida Surgeon General Scott A. Rivkees appears to be removed from Gov. Ron DeSantis’s coronavirus meeting after suggesting that social distancing guidelines would likely have to remain for a year. Removing an official for voicing their expert opinion raises questions about attempts to control information about public health.
Rhinelander TV Station Sued by Trump Campaign President Trump’s campaign team sues a Rhinelander, WI, TV station for airing an advertisement it says contains “intentionally false and defamatory statements about President Trump.” The campaign disagrees with the ad’s use of Trump’s saying “hoax” when discussing the coronavirus.
The Right to Protest During a Pandemic Social distancing complicates the right to protest across America, but public protest is perhaps needed now more than ever. Examples of labor demonstrations that respected social distancing guidelines show the impact of organized action, particularly in industries deemed “essential” during this crisis. NCAC issues statement in support of protest rights, provided protestors abide by emergency regulations.
Amazon Fires Employees Who Criticized Warehouse Safety Reports emerge that Amazon fired three of its employees who criticized the company’s handling of warehouse worker safety during the pandemic, raising concerns about whistleblowers during a time of crisis.
Teenager Threatened with Arrest for Social Media Post About Coronavirus
A Wisconsin teenager was threatened with arrest if she did not remove an Instagram post stating she was being treated for Covid-19. The police received a complaint about the post from the school and justified their demand for its removal by stating that no cases of Covid-19 had at that time been confirmed in the county. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the teenager, arguing that her First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated. Law enforcement patrolling what individuals can say about their own health on social media is an alarming threat to free expression.
Facebook Announces Removal of Content Encouraging Protests that Violate Local Health Guidelines
Facebook announced that it would remove discussions and event postings that encouraged defiance of social-distancing rules. Specifically, the platform blocks users from utilizing the platform to organize protests that violate public health regulations. How closely the platform is working with individual states to determine what, precisely, their regulations do and do not allow is unclear.
YouTube Will Ban Content Containing Medical Advice That Contradicts World Health Organization Recommendations
The CEO of YouTube announced that the Google-owned video streaming platform would remove information that is “problematic.” The platform intends to use World Health Organization recommendations as a guide for what information to allow and will ban any information that is “medically unsubstantiated.” This is one of the broadest policies yet seen as social media companies attempt to control misinformation that could have negative effects on public health.
Leading Health Department Official Claims He Was Reassigned for Disagreeing with Political Pressure to Advance Untested Virus Treatment
Dr. Rick Bright, the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was removed from his post and reassigned to a narrower role. He claims that he was removed for voicing disagreement with advancing politically-popular but medically-unproven treatments for Covid-19.
Coronavirus Quiets Global Protest Movements Millions of protesters around the world have been forced or have chosen to stay at home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Hong Kong protesters were among the first to feel the effects of the virus, as an official ban on public gatherings of more than four people has frozen their protests. Creative methods of protesting have emerged, however, including projecting images of crowds onto empty streets, organizing strikes and creating online workshops.
Will Internet Speech Go Back to Normal? As tech companies continue to censor potentially harmful coronavirus information and share their data capacities with federal and state governments, civil rights groups are concerned that this oversight will persist after the pandemic. Some scholars, however, argue that this is the logical next step in the evolution of the Internet.
Florida Officials Stop Medical Examiners From Releasing Coronavirus Death Data After the Tampa Bay Times reported thatthe coronavirus death count released by Florida medical examiners was 10 percent higher than the figure released by the Florida Department of Health, state officials revoked public access to the examiners’ data. Florida medical examiners argue that the data is public information, and state officials have no right to alter or restrict access to the information.
Pence’s Staff Threatens Action Against Reporter Who Tweeted About Visit to Clinic Without Surgical Mask After Vice President Pence received criticism for not wearing a mask at the Mayo Clinic, his office has threatened retaliation against a reporter who revealed that Pence had been told prior to his visit that he needed to wear a mask. Pence’s actions raise concern over the current administration’s willingness to censor criticism from the media.
Retail Workers Protest COVID-19 Conditions Hundreds of workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, and more called out sick as part of a one-day strike to protest poor working conditions and inadequate safety precautions by their employers. The strike was largely driven by Amazon’s decision to end its unlimited time off policy for workers at the end of April.
Trump Replaces Watchdog Who Identified Critical Medical Shortages President Trump has moved to replace Christi A. Grimm: a top official in the Department of Health and Human Services who recently reported on supply shortages and testing delays in hospitals across the country. Trump’s decision to remove Grimm comes after weeks of denouncing her report, and it follows the the current administration’s pattern of refusing to tolerate criticism of its coronavirus response.
New York Police Department and Mayor Bill de Blasio Shut Down Protest in NYC A protest outside Mount Sinai Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan was broken up by police, who claimed that the protestors were violating state and city guidelines. About a dozen people had gathered to protest the city’s partnership with an anti-gay religious organization to build a temporary hospital during the height of the pandemic. Protestors claim that they were observing social distancing rules and staying six feet apart from one another on the sidewalk. Civil liberties advocates are disturbed by the violation of free speech rights, as the protestors appear to have abided by health and safety guidelines, suggesting that the city shut them down because of their message, rather than for disobeying the executive orders in place.
White House Bars Members of Coronavirus Task Force from Testifying Before Congress The White House recently revealed that all members of its coronavirus task force are barred from testifying before Congress unless they get special permission from chief of staff John Meadows. Although the reason given was that task force members are too busy dealing with the virus, pundits argue that the move is an attempt to thwart congressional oversight and media scrutiny towards the administration’s coronavirus response. The move also threatens the public’s access to relevant coronavirus information.
Arizona Halts Partnership With Experts Predicting an Increase in Coronavirus Cases After Arizona Governor Doug Ducey accelerated plans to reopen businesses, his administration cut ties with a group of experts who cautioned that the state was still two weeks away from reaching its peak number of coronavirus cases. Arizona’s decision to sideline academic experts reflects growing friction between officials pushing to restart the economy and those warning against relaxing restrictions too quickly.
Senators Want to Know if Amazon Retaliated Against Whistleblowers A group of senators, led by Elizabeth Warren, have sent a letter to Amazon questioning the company for firing four employees who raised concern about the spread of coronavirus in the company’s warehouses. Tim Bray, former vice president of Amazon Web Services, recently quit the company over dismay of Amazon’s decision to fire these workers. Amazon’s actions raise serious concerns regarding employee rights during the ongoing pandemic.
White House Rejects C.D.C.’s Coronavirus Reopening Plan White House officials have rejected a list of guidelines compiled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention over concerns that they were too prescriptive, infringed on religious rights and risked further damage to the economy. The administration’s response again highlights the tension between its desire to reopen the country and the advice of public health experts who caution against doing so too rapidly. The response also calls into question whether governments have the right to abridge certain religious freedoms during a national emergency.
Brooklyn Governor Sues NY Governor Cuomo Over Lockdown Order In a lawsuit filed on March 27, 2020, Attorney Lee Nigen sued Gov. Cuomo, claiming Cuomo’s ban on large social gatherings violates the right of Jewish individuals to practice their faith. Nigen argues that Cuomo’s order is too restrictive and that it could establish a dangerous precedent for civil liberties during times of national crises.
NYC Hospital to Investigate Nurse for Sharing Video Footage Lillian Udell, an emergency room nurse, is being investigated by Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx for posting a video on supply shortages and the death of Freda Ocran, a 50-year-old former head nurse who died of coronavirus. Hospital administrators are accusing Udell of violating both federal health information privacy laws (HIPPA) and policies pertaining to speaking with the press and using social media. Lincoln Hospital’s investigation highlights the consequences many healthcare workers are facing for speaking out on the current pandemic.
Coronavirus Stalls FOIA Requests Many local and federal government officials have advised state agencies to hold off on complying with freedom of information requests. This lack of transparency represents a threat to democracy and has the potential to restrict access to relevant coronavirus information.
Nebraska Health Officials Stop Reporting Infection Rates at Meatpacking Plants Nebraska Governor Rick Picketts recently announced that state health officials will no longer disclose figures on the infection rate among meatpacking plant employees. Meatpacking plants have been associated with some of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic, and advocates argue, without access to the numbers, it will be impossible to know how effective precautionary measures have been. Nebraska’s decision to withhold information raises concern over worker safety and public access to relevant coronavirus information.
New Lawsuit Says Right to Protest was Violated Four people have sued Kentucky Governor Andy Beasher and other government officials, claiming their First Amendment rights to protest have been violated by orders against mass gatherings and limits on protests taking place at the state Capitol. The lawsuit claims that coronavirus precautions do not justify Gov. Beasher’s violations of First Amendment and due process rights.
Journalists Covering Pandemic Risk Infection A recent video, taken on the steps of the Columbus, Ohio statehouse, shows a maskless protestor getting in the face of a masked NBC-affiliate reporter. Journalists in several other states have been involved in altercations at anti-lockdown protests, prompting the Committee to Protect Journalists to issue guidelines to reporters on how to prepare for covering anti-lockdown rallies. As public safety measures become increasingly divisive, wearing a mask can make reporters a target and threaten their ability to safely and effectively report the news.
Trump Officials Push C.D.C. to Revise its Coronavirus Death Count President Trump and members of the coronavirus task force are encouraging officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to modify their approach to tracking the coronavirus death count, arguing that the current numbers are either incorrectly tallied or inflated. C.D.C. officials are pushing back against the request and claim that it would falsely skew the mortality rate at a critical point in the pandemic. The White House’s insistence on modifying the death count represents another clash with the C.D.C., and it opposes Dr. Anthony Fauci’s claim that the U.S. death count is likely higher than the data being reported.
French Social Media Law Threatens Freedom of Speech The French parliament has recently passed a law that forces social media networks to remove certain hateful and illegal content within 24 hours. The law requires networks to remove discriminatory and sexually abusive comments, as well as any content related to terrorism and child pornography that have been flagged by users. France’s actions raise serious freedom of speech concerns, as the law includes no penalties if social media networks wrongly remove content, yet there exists a fine for not removing “hateful” content. This will almost certainly result in an incentive to remove any questionable material and will ultimately infringe on freedom of expression. A recent study has also found that relying on self-reported metrics from social media networks can be dangerous and misleading.
Top Health Officials Vanish from National TV Interviews As White House officials continue to increase their control over coronavirus-related communications, the nation’s top physicians have stopped appearing on national television stations for interviews. Dr. Deborah Birx was the last doctor on the coronavirus task force to appear on TV, speaking with CNN on May 7. The lack of a voice granted to top physicians threatens the availability of relevant coronavirus information, and it follows the pattern of the White House prioritizing its economic message over the message of public health officials.
The Right to Conduct Anti-Lockdown Protests While many states, such as California and New York, have taken steps to ban in-person protests, one can reasonably argue that they are violating their citizens’ right to assemble. Rather than broadly restrict protests, states should consider permitting protests under the condition that the participating individuals abide by social distancing guidelines and mask ordinances.
Florida Health Department Manager Forced to Resign Rebekah Jones, a top data manager in the Florida Department of Health, claims she was removed from her position for objecting to modify data in her COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard. Jones’ dashboard has been regarded as the best official source for in-depth data on the virus’ movement within Florida, and Jones cautions that the she does not expect the new team in charge to update the dashboard with the same level of accessibility and transparency as she did. As a result, Florida citizens will have to rely on the words of officials and politicians without having the tools to verify the information they receive.
C.D.C. Sources State White House Putting Politics Ahead of Science Several C.D.C. officials have claimed that their agency’s efforts to mount a coordinated response to the pandemic have been limited by the White House, whose officials continue to prioritize politics and economics over science. The relationship between the two agencies started to deteriorate at the beginning of the crisis and has worsened as the virus progressed, threatening the availability of reliable scientific information on the coronavirus.
Trump Continues to Lash Out at Scientists Whose Findings Contradict Him As White House officials push to reopen the country, President Trump has repeatedly dismissed studies that counter his agenda, often claiming that their authors are motivated by politics and seek to undermine him. In response to a recent Columbia University study that found that more than 55 percent of reported deaths could have been prevented had social distancing measures been put into place sooner, Trump argued that Columbia is a “liberal” institution and the study is “just a political hit job.” Undermining America’s trust in the integrity of scientists can be especially damaging during a pandemic, as the public relies on its leaders to develop policies based on the best available information.
States Face Criticism for Data Cover-Ups As states across the country begin to reopen, several are coming under criticism for publishing misleading statistics or concealing information related to the coronavirus outbreak. Many of the reported incidents, such as Florida officials’ removal of Rebekah Jones and the Arizona Department of Health’s removal of a team of university experts, have been reported in this timeline. However, more criticisms are sure to surface as state governments face questions about how open and honest they have been about the virus’ impact on the public.
As Meatpacking Plants Reopen, Data About Worker Illness Remains Elusive Hundreds of meatpacking plants across the country have experienced a substantial number of coronavirus cases relative to other industries. However, in locations such as the Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel, NC, neither plant employees nor state and local health officials have provided data on the number of illnesses at the plant. The reluctance to publicize detailed case counts makes it difficult to tell whether the virus is contained in meatpacking plants and threatens employee safety.
U.S. Government Funding Armenian Website That Spreads Coronavirus Disinformation The U.S. State Department recently awarded a grant to Armenian website, Medmedia.am, which is spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. The website, led by the Armenian Association of Young Doctors, suggests Armenians ought to “refuse” future vaccinations and has referred to COVID-19 as a “fake pandemic.” As coronavirus cases rise in Armenia, the spread of disinformation threatens the country’s ability to combat the virus.
Over 1,000 Health Professionals Sign a Letter in Support of Floyd Protests Concerned that protests across the country could be shut down under the guise of coronavirus fears, 1,288 public health professionals signed a letter stating that opposition to racism is vital to public health and that officials must focus on responding to, rather than suppressing, protestor demands. The letter reads, “COVID-19 among Black patients is yet another lethal manifestation of white supremacy. In addressing demonstrations against white supremacy, our first statement must be one of unwavering support for those who would dismantle, uproot, or reform racist institutions.” The letter also includes a set of guidelines for protestors to follow in order to protect themselves against COVID-19.
Top Health Officials Face Death Threats Often at the center of news briefings, leaders of local and state health departments have become targets for harassment, insults and death threats from members of the public who believe government restrictions have gone too far. Fearing for their safety, several state health directors have resigned from their posts, prompting industry officials to worry about a lack of leadership as the pandemic progresses.
COVID-19 Continues to Threaten Civil Liberties While it is undeniably necessary to implement precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, state and local officials have wrongly used the coronavirus as an excuse to slash legal protections. When hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters were arrested in New York City on June 3, they were illegally held in crowded holding cells for over 24 hours without seeing a judge. The New York State Supreme Court, however, rejected a petition to immediately release the prisoners, arguing that social distancing requirements justified the suspension of a law designed to protect citizens from wrongful detention. The New York court’s decision echoes those made by officials across the country, and it is just one example of how the pandemic has been used to further known patterns of oppression.
Hospitals Required to Report COVID-19 Data to HHS Instead of CDC The Trump Administration has ordered the nation’s hospitals to reroute daily COVID-19 data reporting from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a change that limits the ability of researchers, modelers, the media, and the public to evaluate government recommendations. NCAC has joined a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar urging him to rescind the order.
Georgia School Reverses Suspension of Teen Who Shared Viral Photo of Hallway Packed with Students Two students at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia, were suspended after they posted pictures of crowded hallways at the school, where most students were not wearing masks. The school rescinded the suspensions the following Friday, after the suspensions received national media attention. The NCAC joined a letter to the school urging that the suspensions be rescinded and that student free speech rights be respected. On August 10, it was reported that several students and staff had tested positive for COVID-19 and that the school would close temporarily as a result.
Georgia Keeps Key Virus Information from Public The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported that the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, has withheld hundreds of pages of documents requested by the newspaper. These include comparisons of deaths in Georgia counties and details of agreements with local hospitals.
Schools Withhold Covid Information From Public As schools in parts of the country have reopened classrooms amid a still-raging pandemic, some districts been silent about the prevalence of positive Covid cases, sometimes citing privacy concerns to withhold information, to the dismay of some anxious parents, concerned educators and public health experts trying to combat the pandemic.
Chinese Messaging Platform Censored Information About Coronavirus Pandemic Between January and May of 2020, more than 2,000 keywords related to the pandemic were suppressed on the Chinese messaging platform WeChat, which has more than 1 billion users in the country. Many of the censored terms referenced events and organizations in the United States.
Florida Orders Some Counties to Hide Data on Coronavirus in Schools After pushing aggressively for schools in the state to reopen, Governor Ron DeSantis’s administration ordered some districts to stop releasing school specific coronavirus information, citing privacy issues.
NIH official to ‘retire’ after being ID’d as author of anti-Fauci posts National Institute of Health (NIH) employee William Crews abruptly retired from his public affairs position after he was identified as authoring blog posts that disparaged Dr. Anthony Fauci and mocked the use of face masks.
Florida newspaper investigation finds state government misled public on Covid as cases rose An investigation by the South Florida Sun Sentinel has concluded that the state government misled the public about the extent and dangers of the pandemic, especially in the run-up to the presidential election. The Florida department of health’s county-level spokespeople stopped issuing public statements about Covid-19 between September and the 3 November election. Original reporting here (behind paywall)
Online Platforms Zoom, YouTube and Facebook Threaten Academic Freedom As universities rely heavily on major online platforms to reach students learning remotely during the pandemic, Zoom, Facebook and YouTube have infringed on academic freedom by restricting academic content on their platforms. Several incidents occurred throughout Fall 2020 in which university panels featuring Leila Khaled were blocked by the online hosts.