With the unprecedentedly quick spread of COVID19 (also known as the coronavirus), governments around the world have been struggling to manage official responses to the pandemic. The variety of responses in recent months – from China locking down the Wuhan region for several weeks to reports of massive spring break crowds on beaches in the U.S. while COVID-19 is actively spreading – have led to varying results for politicians and public health officials trying to stop the spread of the contagion before it overwhelms hospital systems.
Unfortunately, these unprecedented times have also posed an unprecedented risk for many of our First Amendment freedoms, particularly that of freedom of assembly. While we have no way of predicting how or when this will end, it’s important to be mindful of the ways in which governments could infringe upon our individual liberties. While many actions taken by countries in February and March were likely essential for protecting public health to some degree, we should continue to watch the situation closely to ensure our First Amendment freedoms aren’t curtailed, as a Washington Post article suggested might happen.
Freedom to Assemble
The freedom of assembly in the U.S. Constitution refers to the people’s rights to come together and protest, advocate for change or defend their shared ideas. Compared to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, this First Amendment right doesn’t seem to get as much attention in media – until now, of course.
With government leaders following WHO recommendations for “social distancing,” “self-isolating” and “shelter in place” restrictions on movement, the public is increasingly unable to come together in the physical sense (e.g., a march on Washington D.C. or community protest). However, these unusual times have amplified the importance of electronic communications in collective organizing, discussions and even protests, as politicians are communicating much more extensively with their constituents through live video conferences, emails and social media.
Members of the public are also leveraging electronic communication as the new means for coming together in online spaces while physically congregating remains limited or prohibited in many places around the U.S. and the world beyond. People have been circling petitions, sharing coronavirus updates through social media, debating public policy options, and mobilizing others to help their communities in creative ways, such as organizing meal delivery services for elderly and other at-risk populations, sharing remote teaching techniques and offering support for people struggling with health issues or job loss.
We may not be able to freely assemble outside during a pandemic, but the public’s innovative uses for electronic communication during times of restricted social contact could pave the way for new avenues of assembly to rise up in digital spaces in the future.
Freedom of the Press
The freedom of the press has also been tightened somewhat during the COVID-19 pandemic (of course, freedom of the press was already on a global decline prior to the spread of the coronavirus). During the pandemic, some politicians have limited or banned reporters from in-person briefings, such as President Trump’s decision to limit the number of Chinese journalists allowed to work in the U.S. for CCP-led publications, followed by China’s expulsion of American journalists working for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post.
By removing journalists’ ability to get to the heart of a problem and report accurate information to the public, governments are hindering our ability to maintain a free and independent press. Time will tell if these restrictions lighten up, but it certainly poses an interesting dilemma between informing the public and protecting public health that will likely remain an issue for future global pandemics.
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech is another First Amendment freedom affected by the spread of the coronavirus and subsequent government efforts to slow the outbreak. Social media websites have tightened restrictions on what can and cannot be posted about the virus, largely in an attempt to prevent fake news stories or harmful health advice from gaining traction, such as the dangerous advice of drinking bleach to cure coronavirus (it doesn’t work).
People have also been arrested for falsely claiming to have tested positive for Covid-19, which the Tyler County (TX) DA’s office explained in a Facebook post, warning people could be charged for “knowingly communicating, initiating, or circulating a false report/false alarm of COVID-19 that one knows is false or baseless.”
These may seem like uncertain or even frightening times, but a global pandemic doesn’t have to mean the erosion of our First Amendment rights is inevitable. Human Rights Watch put out an excellent analysis of human rights affected by COVID-19 (including many of our First Amendment freedoms) and staying informed while staying safe is essential for protecting our Constitutional rights for generations to come.