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No First Amendment Protection for Refusing Masks During Covid, Says Appeals Court

In a significant ruling, a federal appeals court in New Jersey dismissed arguments on Monday that residents’ refusal to wear face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic constituted protected speech under the First Amendment.

The decision comes amid ongoing debates over mask mandates and public health measures across the country.

Appeals Court Decision

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The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals issued its ruling in response to two cases involving lawsuits against officials in Freehold and Cranford, New Jersey.

Not Protected By Free Speech

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While one case was sent back to a lower court for consideration, the court found that refusing to wear a mask did not qualify as protected speech under the Constitution.

No First Amendment Protection

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The court made it clear that disobeying a masking requirement during a public health emergency does not fall under the umbrella of free speech rights.

Court Ruling

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“A question shadowing suits such as these is whether there is a First Amendment right to refuse to wear a protective mask as required by valid health and safety orders put in place during a recognized public health emergency.

Like all courts to address this issue, we conclude there is not,” the court said.

Legal Precedent

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The ruling cited past cases and legal principles to support its decision, highlighting that actions such as refusing to pay taxes or disobeying safety regulations do not constitute protected speech.

Other Means of Opposition

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The court added, “Skeptics are free to — and did — voice their opposition through multiple means, but disobeying a masking requirement is not one of them.”

Plaintiffs and Allegations

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The lawsuits were brought by George Falcone and Gwyneth Murray-Nolan, who attended school board meetings without masks and faced consequences for their refusal to comply with mask mandates.

Charges

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While Falcone alleged retaliation for his actions, Murray-Nolan was arrested for trespassing after attending a meeting without a mask.

Intent to Petition Supreme Court

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Ronald Berutti, an attorney representing the appellants, announced plans to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

The decision sets the stage for potential further legal battles over the intersection of public health mandates and individual rights.

Support for Ruling

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Officials named in the lawsuits welcomed the court’s decision, arguing that mask mandates serve as essential public health measures during emergencies.

Not Civil Disobedience

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In an emailed statement, Eric Harrison, an attorney for the officials named in the suit said that refusing to wear a mask in violation of a public health mandate “is not the sort of ‘civil disobedience’ that the drafters of the First Amendment had in mind as protected speech.”

End of Statewide Mask Mandate

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New Jersey’s statewide mask mandate for schools ended in March 2022, following the incidents described in the lawsuits.

While the legal battles continue, the ruling reaffirms the authority of public health orders during times of crisis.

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