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.

Filed Under: 1st amendment, anthony ambrose, china, disinformation, free speech, information sharing, misinformation, new jersey, newark

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 17 Mar 2020 @ 12:11am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Clearly, you haven't been to Newark.

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