Bad Ideas: Newark Stupidly Threatens 'Criminal Prosecution' Against Anyone Who Reports 'False' Info About Covid-19

from the not-how-any-of-this-works dept

Look, I totally understand the very valid concerns that many people have about the spreading of false or misleading information regarding Covid-19. There are plenty of reports about misinformation spreading, especially via social media. Indeed, there are reports on the lengths to which various social media platforms are trying to crack down on all that misinformation — a noble goal, though plenty will inevitably get through. This is the very nature of content moderation.

So, I can understand why public officials are concerned about how the spread of misinformation could be a real problem. But if you want a masterclass in how not to deal with the problem of misinformation about the coronavirus, look no further than Newark, New Jersey, where Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose has put out a statement that is both dangerous and unconstitutional at the same time (quite a twofer). I’m posting a screenshot in the expectation (hope?) someone will realize just how bad this is and remove it. It says that anyone who posts false information about the coronavirus will face “criminal prosecution.”

If you can’t see that, it says:

Public Safety Director Ambrose warns against false reporting of coronavirus in Newark via social media

Newark Public Safety Director Anthony F. Ambrose strongly urges the public against posting false information on social media regarding the presence of the coronavirus in the City of Newark.

?Any false reporting of the coronavirus in our city will result in criminal prosecution,? Director Ambrose said. ?We are putting forth every investigative effort to identify anyone making false allegations on social media to ensure that any posted misinformation is immediately addressed.?

Director Ambrose adds that misleading information on social media may cause an unnecessary public alarm.

?The State of New Jersey has laws regarding causing a false public alarm and we will enforce those laws,? Ambrose said. ?Individuals who make any false or baseless reports about the coronavirus in Newark can set off a domino effect that can result in injury to residents and visitors and affect schools, houses of worship, businesses and entire neighborhoods,? he added.

I’m debating whether to detail first why it’s dumb or why it’s unconstitutional, but let’s start with dumb. Threatening to criminally prosecute someone for providing “false” information is very, very likely to chill the reporting of accurate and useful information out of a fear that if it’s “false” the person will face criminal prosecution. Just last month we highlighted how China’s similar “crackdown” on “untruthful information” silenced the doctor who first raised the alarm about the coronavirus. If he had been able to actually get out the word faster, perhaps we wouldn’t be facing such a global crisis.

Second, this is blatantly unconstitutional. The argument that this violates New Jersey’s laws against “a false public alarm” is nonsense. The law in question, NJ Rev Stat § 2C:33-3 (2014) already seems to have some constitutional issues, but is targeted at people calling in a fake bomb scare or something along those lines:

… a person is guilty of a crime of the third degree if he initiates or circulates a report or warning of an impending fire, explosion, bombing, crime, catastrophe or emergency knowing that the report or warning is false or baseless and that it is likely to cause evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transport, or to cause public inconvenience or alarm. A person is guilty of a crime of the third degree if he knowingly causes such false alarm to be transmitted to or within any organization, official or volunteer, for dealing with emergencies involving danger to life or property.

That’s very different than merely posting false information online. Such information wouldn’t be intended to cause evacuation or some other form of panic. There is simply no way in which a court would find merely posting false information about Covid-19 as a criminal matter. The 1st Amendment would easily block such an action.

One hopes that someone explains not just the 1st Amendment to Public Safety Director Ambrose, but also the importance of letting people share information and not scaring them off from providing valuable information in a time of need.

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Comments on “Bad Ideas: Newark Stupidly Threatens 'Criminal Prosecution' Against Anyone Who Reports 'False' Info About Covid-19”

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Anonymous Coward says:

To beat the bandwagon "It’s the same thing as yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater, so of course it should be illegal". Not even close. You’re not enclosed in a dark space, and you are not in immediate danger of bodily harm. As with a lot of things, context matters.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

What I was trying to say is "just because some website tells you this cornoavirus is so deadly you must buy my patented antibacterial solution" doesn’t mean you need to arrest them. Once some odd dies from it, yes. But people are allowed to be idiots. Before the internet, they infested street corners. I give both the same amount of attention.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"It is illegal in US to shout "fire" in a theatre if there is no fire."

Not exactly.

Justice Holmes created that saying as an example in a case which concerned the already extremely dubious Espionage act about distributing leaflets with opinion during wartime.

It was since partially overturned and made the butt of a great many jokes by judges and lawyers.

In short, if you stand up and shout "fire" in a crowded theatre it will still go to a judge who needs to determine both intent and result of the act.

In general it is held that anyone bringing that saying up is simply looking for a convenient way to club the first amendment into silence using a dubious ruling from a 1919 court relying on wartime law.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Ok Hotshot.. I’m not going to tell you to go ahead and yell, "FIRE!" in a theatre with no fire burning because some twisted mind might say I caused you, but I will bet you a week’s salary that if you do it and get fingered by someone to the cops, you will be CONVICTED of inciting panic in a public place, a First degree misdemeanor punishable up to six months in jail and a $1000.00 fine.

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Anonymous Monkey (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Even Better: The "Yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater" was a rhetorical device used to evoke a certain feeling. That "famous" quote is talked about in Make No Law Podcast: Episode 7. A later court decision defined the "strict scrutiny" standard which would be talked about in the next episode. The yelling ‘Fire!’ in the crowded theater being unlawful would be determined by what the totality of the circumstance. i.e: Was it meant to evoke a panic?, etc…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Fire/Theater

Justice Holmes’ erroneous fire/theater quote is the most infamous dodge in American dialogue about free speech.
Holmes conjured up this quip in vigorous defense of Federal suppression of wartime dissent.

Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dictum that the First Amendment
“would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre” prompts many to think

Congress can make some laws restricting free speech if the laws are deemed necessary by Congress.

But the 1st Amendment is crystal clear on this:
“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging freedom of speech or of the press.”

Justice Holmes was disingenuous but very successfully muddied the waters on this critical Free Speech right.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Fire/Theater

Congress has made many laws that were unconstitutional, what is to stop them now?
You have a right to petition the government but that usually entails monetary resources, so once again – money is speech – tough luck poor people. Muaahhhahahahahh Muaahhhhahahahha

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Also, what is being reported about the death rate figures differ by country and it seems the CDC numbers are very low. In Italy doing the math for number of deaths compared to number of infections reported, 827/12,462 equals 6.6% death rate that is 66 times worse than the influenze death rate of .1% being reported.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

China just over a week ago had about 3000 deaths to 78,000 infected. Doing a simple division equation of3000/78,000 equals 3.8% not two percent as being reported. The unofficial counts include approximations calculated in for unreported cases of infections, but can’t be accurate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

The latest numbers of deaths and infections in China as of today: 3176 deaths/80813 infections equals 3.9% death rate from official count.

As Scary Devil M. points out, these official numbers probably miss those who have rode this infection out and did not report to hospitals for treatment as well as other mitigating factors and errors such as whether people who literally fell over dead in the streets of Wuhan were properly reported, and the fluidity of this continuing pandemic means facts can change without notice.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Also, what is being reported about the death rate figures differ by country and it seems the CDC numbers are very low."

To be predicted given the utter lack of any form of baseline. Depending on the dispersion vector, the amount of undiagnosed afflicted, and general age, state of health, prevalence of mitigating or aggravating factors, etc, there is – literally – no other way to measure the approximate lethality by trying to fart up a statistical average which may tell us nothing.

SARS v2 might kill 50% of people past the age of 70 and 0% of people under the age of 10. Pre-existing immunosystem stress may render the infection more or less serious. Allergens may mitigate or aggravate the body’s response. Increased or decrease temperature and/or air moisture may change the odds of survival. We simply don’t know.

Which is why anyone quoting percentages right now would be better off taking any current average with more than a few grains of salt.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"No mitigating factors nothing just death rate."

Then you end up with MANIFESTLY FALSE DATA.

Because you are totalling death rates which will not be the same depending on demographic. Go read some biology before you keep defending that nonsense.

For one and the same virus to manifest entirely different death rates depending on the country culture, age and health demographics, state of public health and health awareness – is completely normal and has been observed in every pandemic since we started making flu statistics.

The death statistics in Wuhan, for instance, can NOT be relied on to show us the mortality rate of the virus even if (and that’s a big if) the Chinese aren’t fudging the numbers. The population in wuhan will have been exposed to the precursors of this virus and a certain herd immunity will exist – this will drag the numbers down by a variable amount.
At the same time the lack of decent and immediate health care and quarantine procedures will push the infection rate – and thus the death toll – up. Again by a variable.

So if someone tells me they know the mortality rate of this virus my response will be "bullshit". And any reputable biologist or epidemiologist will say the same.

What we KNOW so far is that covid-19 is able to kill and seems to be more lethal to the elderly. The percentages are guidelines which can’t be relied on within any given order of magnitude.

"Life around you MUST be scary."

If you find science and fact scary then that’s on you. Not me.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"I bring something to the table and you always have to stamp on it."

When you bring rubbish to the table then it gets stamped on. 2+2 ain’t 5, and no one is "out to get you" just because they tell you it’s not.

"You show me narcisism and contritness? Lol"

No, I tell you you’re wrong. Then you show us that you’re a moron when you double down on the nonsense you presented.

Funny. When I got into this thread I thought Newark was wrong to make general stupidity and spreading false information illegal. You’re really putting in the extra work to make me change my mind there.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Latest numbers as of today in Italy; 15,113 infected / 1016 Dead. Doing the math 1016/15113 equals 6.7% Death rate from reported cases. China released information concerning two types of Coronavirus: Types S and L. The more aggressive Type ‘L’ causes immune system to produce cytokines creating Interferons to attack virus in an overly aggressive response that in and of itself was proving to tear away healthy lung tissue and raise lethality more than just the symptoms of the virus.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"The more aggressive Type ‘L’ causes immune system to produce cytokines creating Interferons to attack virus in an overly aggressive response that in and of itself was proving to tear away healthy lung tissue and raise lethality more than just the symptoms of the virus."

Cytokine production and the feedback increase in interferon production is the standard way of describing every immunosystemic response to irritation. You’ve just described the general inflammatory response. And that apparently by quoting either a journalist who has limited understanding, or someone parroting whatever they were told by china – which, again, has been demonstrating execrable ineptitude at their handling of vital information from the start.
Basically you’re quoting clickbait.

The consensus, looking at researchers with the WHO, seems to be that type S isn’t a strain – it’s a precursor of type L. It acts exactly via the same mechanism as it’s successor, is likely to be similarly affected by any vaccine, with none of the usual markers on the coat altered, and isn’t demonstrably more lethal.
What they have so far indicates L may be more successful in spreading. Full stop.
Most importantly, the "strains" have been identified from a sample of 103 cases in total which is NOT going to cut it when it comes to determining how many strains of Covid-19 are out there.

Generally speaking every new infection will result in multiple new variants, only one of which proves viable. The important bit here being only whether a vaccine can be manufactured which incorporates the antigen for all strains likely to emerge.

In short, the entire "S vs L" debate is, right now, slightly interesting from a scientific pov but utterly irrelevant when it comes to what the citizenry can do to protect themselves against covid-19.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

"That’s a seven syllable word! Are you sure you can handle that? I only have to break out words like that for Scary Devil Monastery…"

Your fear of education when it comes to describing accurate information about virology isn’t anyone’s problem but your own.

Assuming you’re the same AC who kept posting clickbait copypasta in the thread above.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"China reported actually that the two variations that were infecting people were not their’s. They don’t match their labs samples. It is not a Chinese caronavirus."

This would be the same China which has already demonstrated a willingness to risk it’s own citizens and everyone else in a massive coverup campaign?

I’m afraid that what the chinese government allows to slip out right now is more than just a bit suspect.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"China is not letting out all it knows I would bet my favorite boots on it."

Of course not. An epidemic coming from Wuhan is embarrassing for whatever politician runs wuhan. So there’s a coverup.
Then the epidemic escapes Wuhan and hits China as a whole, including Singapore and Hong Kong. That’s embarrassing for Xi Jin Ping, so his cadre of bureaucrats try to mitigate the damage…with a coverup.

Then covid-19 escapes China and a coverup is no longer possible. That’s embarrassing so now a bunch of chinese mandarins are frantically trying to find a way to make the virus not even be chinese to begin with.

…and this is the point where I’d now only trust a chinese epidemiologist to present true findings if those facts are presented and peer-reviewed by expert authority elsewhere.

It reveals a lot about that country that even after an incredible leap of modernization it’s still as inherently unable to man up and come clean about a blunder – or anything remotely inconvenient – as if they were still living under Emperor Qin.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"What government hasn’t shown a willingness to risk their own peoples’ lives?"

A number of european ones are closing schools and advising corporations to switch to homebased work until the epidemic can be considered contained.
Russia did similarly and imposed actual bans on public events (mind you, that’s often politically convenient for russia, so…)

China otoh, tried to coverup the fact that there was a pandemic in the first place completely out of political face-saving. Everything coming out of China since has been more than a bit suspect. Including what appears a campaign to make it look as if the virus wasn’t chinese in the first place (which it damn well is, and there should be some limit to the chinese love for "face").

Trump went out with a clear message that there was "no danger" and with a clearly casual and contemptuous attitude towards the "eggheads" in the task force appointed to deal with it. A task force under Pence the anti-science zealot of all people. Not convincing.

To the answer which government isn’t willing to risk the lives of their citizens the answer is; Thankfully, quite a few.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Threatening to criminally prosecute someone for providing "false" information is very, very likely to chill the reporting of accurate and useful information out of a fear that if it’s "false" the person will face criminal prosecution.

Which brings up a point connected to the current sitting POTUS: Who would decide what information is “false”, and what incentive might they have to call truthful information “false”?

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well aren’t you a racist bastard.

And before you inevitably bite back with some form of “BuT tHe CoRoNaViRuS cAmE fRoM cHiNa!” to claim your statement wasn’t racist (which I’m sure you were going to do after that pointed insult): That the virus originated in China is largely irrelevant to anyone but the people working on research into treatments and such. Chinese people/the Chinese government didn’t “send” COVID-19 to other countries as a deliberate attack. I doubt China would tank the world economy, including its own economy, for shits’n’giggles. Racism and xenophobia isn’t a good look, even (and especially) in times of global crisis.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I have to self quarantine because some idiot comes into convenient store telling the employees he just got back from Italy FIVE DAYS AGO. I come out of this not knowing if or how many people came into contact with this guy. They are reporting that this covid19 isnt airborne and that masks won’t help? I’m calling bullshit to that because I know how these people operate. They would say that just to quash the sale of masks to general public for themselves and sure, medical personnel. My point being is that I know those store owners and employees are not going to self qyarantine even though the known incubation period is 2-14 days and insanely you can be contagious before you know you have contracted it. Italy is on lockdown and I don’t know how it was this guy was even allowed to re-enter US without being quarantined by an apparently indifferent government. Stay tuned.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

That’s what you take away from this? Well, no, I am a frequent customer. Ironically, yes this story has great IRONY, I had just picked up my mail and got yellow warning stickers from ebay seller. Stickers that read SELF QUARANTINED STAY AWAY! not even fifteen minutes before running into this idiot in the store! You just can’t make shit like that up!

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

This guy could have also been lying to create fear. Still and even though I am in the high risk category of people with underlying health conditions and could be facing my own end, I feel a massive responsibility to not endanger other lives, so it is my duty not just to my country but to all mankind to fulfill my civic duty to not spread this virus, should I have contracted it. I have also notified my health care team of my situation via phone.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"They are reporting that this covid19 isnt airborne and that masks won’t help? I’m calling bullshit to that…"

Good call. No, Covid-19 isn’t airborne – by which is meant that it doesn’t travel through air.
Which makes little difference given that it easily travels through aerosolized liquid. Meaning anyone breathing or coughing sprays droplets carrying virii.

Latest findings say the virus survives in aerosol form up to 3 hours, so after someone with covid-19 coughs in a room, assume every surface is then contaminated for several hours. To say nothing from inhaling the coughed-out aerosolized droplets.

The mask will mainly help because it keeps you from passing potential contamination from fingers to nasal or oral mucous membranes where it’ll stick and infect.

The absolutely most effective way to stay uninfected is this;

  • Do not, when outside, let your fingers contact your face.
  • Every time you’ve been in an environment considered "risky" (outdoors, or in the company of other people), make sure to thoroughly wash your hands up to your wrists. Thoroughly

"…insanely you can be contagious before you know you have contracted it."

Because you only express the symptoms once the virus concentration in your body hits enough of a treshold to trigger the immune response responsible for the symptoms. Up until that point you’re still carrying and spreading virii.

"Italy is on lockdown and I don’t know how it was this guy was even allowed to re-enter US without being quarantined by an apparently indifferent government."

Well, you’ve got "I don’t give a fsck" Trump and "I hate Science" Pence in charge. And then you’ve got some poor schmuck from the CDC who, as a scientific expert, gets instant dismissal as a neurotic egghead by POTUS and then ends up actually being the direct subordinate of Pence, who views scientists as Godless Pagans.

It’s not that your government is indifferent. It’s just run by casually arrogant morons who hate fact and religious zealots who actively enjoy the idea of a biblical Armageddon.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Public Safety Director Ambrose warns against false reporting of coronavirus in Newark via social media

Hmm. Ambiguity. Let’s see:

  • false reporting of ([instances of] coronavirus in Newark) via social media.
    So, what was the scope of your powers again? You able to reach out and arrest those bored, homebound kids in Wuhan who are spreading rumors?

  • false reporting of coronavirus (in Newark via social media)
    Got your track shoes on? Someone says something you don’t like, and just happens to be in Newark? Track them down before they leave your jurisdiction, will you?

Y’know? I’m not seeing a way this is going to work out for Newark.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

They would have to prove you had malice and didn’t actually just make a mistake. They are just trying to let the coolest heads prevail because they are also reporting falsehoods when they know things are fluid at this time. What might have seemed true yesturday, might be obviously different today. This is seeing a government who is equally vulnerable to this disease itself acting the same way it always does towards the people of this country, with sneering disdain.

Daydream says:

Darn…on one hand, disinformation can and does put lives in danger; just look at how climate change deniers are slowing us down.
On the other hand, putting a ban on falsehoods and rumors would also stop people telling the truth, if it’s unproven (or, unwelcome).

Maybe it could work if anti-disinformation laws were limited to statements that are provably counterfactual and pose a threat to peoples’ health and safety?
Stuff like ‘consume arsenic, it’s good for your brain’, ‘smoking is harmless’, and ‘vaccines cause autism’?

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There are thousands of parents who have witnessed their kids becoming sick and becoming autistic after the administration of some vaccines. The government is combining a lot of stuff into a single vaccine that has not been time proven in a lot of respects. Some of the damage to human cells and immune systems is not readily noticeable until twenty or thirty years after, but the autism shows up very quickly. No citation needed. It is a fact.

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Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m pretty sure there’s an article on Techdirt with 2,000+ comments where we already hashed through this argument, and trying to renew that argument in a wholly different article’s comment section won’t endear you to the TD commentariat any more than the disproven assertion of fact vis-á-vis vaccines and autism made by a quack who doctored his findings and lost his license to practice medicine as a result.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You are the most ignorant asshole I have had the displeasure of saying that to, ever you idiot. You tell me why the government sneaks in unknown substances into these vaccinations to which NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THEY CAN CAUSE IN THIRTY YEARS BECAUSE THEY AREN’T TIME PROVEN. Geez you people think you’re so fucking clever, but you just stick to each other like a rat infestation in a sewer pipe under Brooklyn.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"You tell me why the government sneaks in unknown substances into these vaccinations…"

Except it doesn’t. A vaccine normally only ever contains two things. Bits of virus coats presenting the specific allergen to which the body needs to manufacture antibodies – and a preservative to ensure those bits don’t start decaying.

There has been, exactly one known case of a major pharmaceutical company making an obscene amount of profit pushing an untested vaccine – against the H1N1 virus – to a massive amount of governments around the world in combination with a big lobbying campaign.
That specific "vaccine" generated side effects, most of whom were, predictably, autoimmune in nature.

Still doesn’t make a case against vaccination. Only a case that the major pharmaceutical companies need to be regulated soviet-style, with a commissar shooting a CEO every time they try to push a sufficiently untested "cure" onto the public.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Vaccines can cause autism in a small percentage of kids."

Not quite true unless you’re describing that one time where an unscrupulous pharma company managed to lobby every government worldwide to purchase massive amounts of a "vaccine" experts had been unable to verify as valid.

Vaccines are simply a way of triggering the immune system to manufacture antibodies to selective markers.

Here’s the thing though – there are small minority percentages of people whose immune system is going to overreact to any challenge. Those people will not take well to either a vaccine – or, even less – actually getting sick.

Finding out which people have compromised immune systems before those immune systems screw those people over, would revolutionize research in autoimmune diseases.

But saying that "vaccines caused harm" is much like saying that the wet street must have called the rain. And that’s where the anti-vaxxers always get correlation confused with cause.

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