Not wearing a mask during COVID-19 health emergency isn’t a free speech right in N.J., appeals court says

A federal appeals court shot down claims Monday that New Jersey residents’ refusal to wear face masks at school board meetings during the COVID-19 outbreak constituted protected speech under the First Amendment.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in two related cases stemming from lawsuits against officials in Freehold and Cranford, New Jersey.

The suits revolved around claims that the plaintiffs were retaliated against by school boards because they refused to wear masks during public meetings. In one of the suits, the court sent the case back to a lower court for consideration. In the other, it said the plaintiff failed to show she was retaliated against.

Still, the court found that refusing to wear a mask during a public health emergency didn’t amount to free speech protected by the Constitution.

“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.

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. One could not, for example, refuse to pay taxes to express the belief that ‘taxes are theft.’ Nor could one refuse to wear a motorcycle helmet as a symbolic protest against a state law requiring them.”

Ronald Berutti, an attorney for the appellants, said they intend to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

  • February 7, 2024
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