A federal appeals court has clarified that refusing to wear a face mask during the COVID-19 health crisis does not fall under the protection of free speech rights according to the First Amendment. This decision came from the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in response to lawsuits from New Jersey residents who claimed their rights were infringed upon by school board requirements to wear masks at public meetings. These cases, highlighted by ABC News, reflect the ongoing legal and ethical debates surrounding public health mandates and individual liberties during the pandemic.
The court examined two specific instances where plaintiffs argued they faced retaliation for not adhering to mask mandates at school board meetings. One case was remanded back to a lower court for further consideration, while in the other, the court concluded the plaintiff did not demonstrate she was subject to retaliation. Importantly, the court’s decision underscores that measures taken during a public health emergency, such as mask mandates, are not subject to First Amendment protections against free speech. The ruling analogizes that just as one cannot refuse to pay taxes to protest the concept of taxation, nor can one disregard a mask mandate as a form of symbolic protest.
The appellants, represented by attorney Ronald Berutti, are planning to escalate the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. This move indicates the significant legal implications and the broader national discourse on the balance between public health directives and individual freedoms.
Eric Harrison, representing the officials named in the lawsuit, supported the ruling, emphasizing that non-compliance with public health mandates does not constitute protected speech or civil disobedience as envisioned by the framers of the Constitution. This stance reiterates the court’s position that public health measures, especially during an emergency, supersede individual expressions of dissent through non-compliance.
New Jersey’s statewide public masking order in schools, which was the context for the incidents leading to these lawsuits, concluded in March 2022. Despite this, the legal challenges persist as reflections of the broader societal debates over governmental authority and individual rights during the pandemic.