Spread of coronavirus and emergency safety measures put pressure on civic freedoms

Spread of coronavirus and emergency safety measures put pressure on civic freedoms
Amazon employees stage walkout over working conditions during COVID19. NY, 30 March 2020. Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Peaceful Assembly

Workers protest during pandemic

Across the country, workers deemed essential during the coronavirus emergency staged walk-outs and other protests over insufficient personal protection equipment and to demand benefits such as paid sick leave or healthcare. For example, on 30th March 2020 employees working at large online and delivery companies like Instacart and Amazon staged a one-day protest to demand protective gear and more compensation for employees asked to work during the pandemic. "They need to give us hazard pay right now and it should be guaranteed," said a former Instacart employee who recently quit her job over COVID-19 fears. In California, fast food workers picketed outside their restaurants on 9th April 2020 to pressure their employers to provide more safety equipment.

Throughout March and April 2020, healthcare workers protested unsafe working conditions for themselves and the public due to the shortage of safety equipment at hospitals and other medical facilities. On 11th March 2020, National Nurses United (NNU), the United States’ largest nursing union, and other groups held rallies outside hospitals and medical centres in Sacramento, Chicago and Atlanta to call attention to the need for more equipment to treat coronavirus patients and to push back on the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention’s weakening of requirements on safety equipment. Similar protests have taken place by healthcare workers in New York and other cities responding to the outbreak.

On 8th April 2020, workers at multiple General Electric plants called on the company’s executives to reopen factories to produce ventilators and other life-saving equipment rather than laying off employees. In Texas, for example, workers picketed outside of a plant while holding signs that said, “Hey, GE we can make ventilators.” Similar protests were held by workers in Massachusetts and New York. "Instead of laying workers off, GE should be stepping up to the plate with us to build the ventilators this country needs," said union President Carl Kennebrew.

Civil society takes action online

The spread of the coronavirus combined with emergency safety measures put in place by many local and state governments disrupted traditional protests and drove civil society to move activities online. For example, a union representing teachers in Colorado cancelled a rally where around 5,000 participants were expected. “Though no official guidance was given to us to restrict public gatherings such as our Day of Action, we don’t want to contribute in any way to the anxiety people are experiencing during this troubling health crisis,” said the president of the union.

Oher groups following proper social distancing guidelines held events online. On 9th April 2020, the Coalition to Protect Missouri Tenants held a virtual rally where nearly 200 residents called on the governor to relax rent and mortgage payments and to temporarily stop evictions, foreclosures and utility cut-offs during the emergency. "I just don't know what I'm going to do. I got my April rent paid to my landlord but that left me broke. I have no savings left and I don't know how I'm going to make my May rent,” said one mother during the event. In Oakland, a teachers’ union held a "virtual Hour of Power" where teachers posted videos of themselves asking school board officials not to close more public schools and made phone calls to local officials. Jane Fonda’s weekly Fire Drill Friday climate change protest also moved online.

More COVID-19 related protests

Detainees, medical experts and human rights activists are calling on the Department of Justice, ICE and state prison officials to release thousands of people trapped in the nation’s prisons and detention facilities to curb the spread of coronavirus. In New Jersey, prisoners in three detention centres held hunger strikes over unsanitary conditions and to demand protective equipment. "They're not taking any measures to protect us," one detainee said. "They haven't done any cleaning. We spent three days without soap." On 8th April 2020, at least 100 inmates at a state prison in Monroe, Washington protested after it was announced that multiple people in the facility had tested positive for the coronavirus. In Arizona on 10th April 2020, more than 100 people participated in an in-car protest at two ICE facilities to demand the release of vulnerable detainees. Legal advocates have also filed lawsuits in multiple states, including California and Massachusetts, on behalf of families and children detained by ICE. “The more people behind bars, the more transmissions you are going to have,” said an epidemiologist about the potential of the virus spreading in closed environments.

While people have demonstrated to demand protection equipment and more appropriate safety measures, many protests against social distancing measures have also taken place, often organised by conservative groups. On 15th April 2020, hundreds of people took to the streets in multiple cities to protest stay-at-home orders meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus and to raise awareness about the economic hardships caused by the restrictions. In Michigan, demonstrators drove a caravan of vehicles to the state Capitol for an in-car protest they called “Operation Gridlock.” Organised by Michigan Conservative Coalition, cars blocked traffic for miles and many people held signs with messages like “End the lockdown.” In North Carolina, about 100 people with group ReopenNC called on the governor to scale back the state’s stay-at-home order. At least one person was arrested at the protest for violating quarantine orders. Similar protests were held in Kentucky, Ohio and Utah.

Restrictive laws

In March 2020 three U.S. states - Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia - passed new laws imposing harsh penalties, including jail time, on protest activities near so-called critical infrastructure. As previously reported on the Monitor, this type of legislation has been introduced in several states aiming to stifle protests near pipeline sites. In Kentucky, House Bill 44 designates “natural gas or petroleum pipelines” as “key infrastructure assets” and categorises “tampering with, impeding, or inhibiting operations of a key infrastructure asset in the offense of criminal mischief in the first degree”. In South Dakota, Senate Bill 151 expands the definition of critical infrastructure to oil, gas or utility equipment, and declares causing “substantial interruption or impairment” of that equipment as a felony. In West Virginia, House Bill 4615 declares fossil fuel infrastructure as critical and increases the penalties for trespassing and damages. On a related note, on 6th March 2020, dozens of people rallied outside a court in Great Falls, Montana in support of a lawsuit against the Keystone XL Pipeline that they said could leak and contaminate the local water supply.

On 25th February 2020, more than 200 people held a demonstration at the Illinois State Capitol to demand an end to the use of money bail, the payment required by a judge before a detained person can be released before their court hearing date. Many of the participants held jars containing 250 gummy bears that represented a thousandth of the number of people who are incarcerated in the state pretrial system each year, which they planned on giving to state representatives. "The use of cash bail, particularly over the last 40 years, has led to a dramatic increase in pre-trial incarceration. It’s pre-trial incarceration that has driven the growth of incarceration in this country," said Nancy Fishman, project director in the Centre on Sentencing and Corrections, which advocates for bail reform.


Some places of worship and other faith-based groups resisted social distancing guidelines and other safety measures in place during the coronavirus pandemic, claiming these measures violate their rights of association and assembly. Several places of worship clashed with local and state stay-at-home orders over holding religious services on Easter Sunday. In Kentucky, for example, drive-through Easter services were held after a U.S. district court judge ruled that restrictions placed on those services were unconstitutional. In New Mexico, a church filed a complaint that challenged the restrictions on having no more than five people in a room regardless of the room’s size or whether social distancing guidelines were being respected.


Restrictions during COVID-19 pandemic

At least 35 states altered their open government laws in response to the coronavirus emergency, according to media reports. While temporary restrictions help mitigate the risk of spreading the virus, advocates argue that transparency is especially important during the public health crisis to ensure the availability of information about the government’s response. In addition, the measures have raised concern about abuse of the restrictions and allegations of officials using them to retaliate against critical journalists. To ensure that people have the opportunity to have their voices heard, advocates are also calling on the government to extend all active public comment periods for proposed rules and regulation, as outlined in a letter signed by over 170 groups.

On 6th April 2020, Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez signed an amendment to the Public Security law that established rules for the island’s quarantine and curfew, prohibiting the media or social media users “to transmit or allow the transmission” of “false information” relating to government statements or executive orders about the coronavirus. “Criminalising the spreading of false information, on social media or in the press, is a clear violation of First Amendment protections. Right now we need unfettered access to reporting, not government efforts that will silence the public and the media by imposing sanctions,” said Nora Benavidez, PEN America’s director of U.S. free expression programmes. This change to the executive order was made just a day after the ACLU filed a legal challenge against the original legislation, arguing some of its restrictions were unconstitutional.

Journalists barred from press events

During the reporting period, multiple journalists and news outlets were barred or restricted from attending public or media events. On 28th March 2020, a Miami Herald reporter was barred from attending a press conference by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis about the coronavirus pandemic. Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald's Tallahassee bureau chief, claimed she was denied entry after requesting social distancing guidelines be adhered to at the event. “I asked for social distancing. I didn’t ask to be excluded,” Klas said.

On 18th February 2020, The Fresno Bee journalists were barred from attending an event with Rep. Devin Nunes and the Department of the Interior in Tulare County, California. The news outlet reported that it had registered and received tickets online, but a Nunes staffer contacted them on the day of the event to say its reporters would not be permitted to attend. According to The Fresno Bee, Nunes is pursuing a lawsuit against their parent company, McClatchy.

On 6th February 2020, Rachel Knapp, a reporter for KRQE, was denied permission to record a state Senate committee meeting in Santa Fe before being asked to leave. “I just prefer this not to be spliced and edited to be used against someone and have someone not be totally truthful in their comments in a bill because they’re worried how something might be splashed and cut in a newscast,” a senator told the reporter. While state Senate rules prohibit recording a meeting without permission, KRQE claimed that a sign posted outside the room about the policy noted that news organisations were exempt. Committee meetings are also reportedly webcast live.

On 24th March 2020, a federal court denied a government motion to dismiss a lawsuit against President Trump that alleges he violated the First Amendment by using government power to retaliate against news outlets. The complaint filed by PEN America argues President Trump retaliated against the White House press corps when he revoked their press passes. “These are classic First Amendment injuries,” U.S. District Judge Lorna Schofield wrote in her opinion. “Plaintiff has constitutional standing to pursue First Amendment claims against defendant’s practice of selectively barring access to the White House press corps, including by revoking or threatening to revoke press credentials, due to hostility to the reporters’ speech and revoking or threatening to revoke the security clearances of former government officials whose commentary he dislikes”.

More developments

On 12th February 2020, a seminary professor in Buffalo was arrested and charged with cyberstalking for allegedly calling and making death threats to a journalist. “I’m gonna find you. I’m gonna kill you,” said Paul Lubienecki in one of the threatening messages left on WKBW’s Charlie Specht’s phone. The reporter said he had been receiving harassing and threatening voicemails for nearly six months, including ones that called on him to end the investigations into the Buffalo diocese and referenced his career and family. “Then it was kind of a menacing voice and they were leaving messages that were very personal but also they were criticising my reporting and saying that there were going to be consequences,” Specht told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

On 26th February 2020, five members of a neo-Nazi paramilitary group were arrested by the FBI on charges that include alleged targeted attacks and harassment of journalists. The men reportedly created materials with images of swastikas and messages like "Your actions have consequences, our patience has its limits - You have been visited by your local Nazis,” and sent them to their targets’ homes, according to the criminal complaint. They sought to intimidate reporters critical of their activities, including Jewish journalists and a black journalists’ association in Arizona. Each of the accused men faces different charges, including conspiracy, stalking and postal offences.

On 2nd March 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new restrictions on Chinese state news outlets operating in the United States, capping their number of employees to 100. The personnel cap reportedly affects five outlets including the Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Daily Distribution Corporation and Hai Tian Development USA. The measure was announced after China revoked press credentials for U.S. journalists based in Beijing, which was in response to a February decision by the State Department to require several Chinese news outlets to register as “foreign missions”.

On 3rd March 2020, Black Lives Matter activists protesting outside the home of Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey reported that Lacey’s husband pointed a gun at them and threatened to shoot. A video published by an activist on social media shows David Lacey pointing a handgun allegedly at a group of protesters and saying “I will shoot you,” and “Get off of my porch.” There were about 30 people participating in the early morning protest. "We heard the gun cocking, and I thought I was being paranoid,” one of the protestors told news outlets. "But then he opened the door, leading with the gun. He saw me and lowered it, pointing it at my chest." Lacey later apologised and said she and her husband were frightened by the protestors.

On 6th April 2020, arrest warrants were issued for two journalists after they visited a Virginia college to cover the school's decision to bring back thousands of students to its campus during the coronavirus pandemic. ProPublica's Alec MacGillis and freelance reporter Julia Rendleman, both of whom visited Liberty University, were charged with criminal trespassing and could face sentences of up to one year in jail and a fine of no more than $2,500. The school’s president accused the reporters of putting students at risk and asked its campus police department to seek the warrants from a judge. A local District Attorney will decide whether to file charges. “These arrest warrants appear to be intended to harass journalists who were simply, and rightly, doing their jobs,” said Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.