United States: On Monday, a federal appeals court refused claims of New Jersey residents’ refusal to wear face masks during school board meetings during the Covid outbreak, constituting protected speech under the First Amendment. 

In New Jersey, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling is being issued for two related cases, which stemmed from lawsuits against officials in Freehold and Cranford. 

More about the case 

The lawsuits centered on allegations that school boards retaliated against plaintiffs for refusing to wear masks in public meetings. 

In one of the suits, the Court referred the case back to lower-level courts for another review. In the other case, it held that the complainants failed to demonstrate retaliation by the school board. 

However, the Court ruled that refusing to wear a mark in a public health emergency didn’t amount to free speech protected by the Constitution. 

The Court said, “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,” as ABC News reported. 

The Court further stated, “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.” 

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

Who filed the lawsuits and why? 

George Falcone and Gwyneth Murray-Nolan of New Jersey had filed the lawsuits. 

In January of early 2021 was the Freehold Township school board meeting that Falcone attended, where masks were still required. 

According to the Court’s ruling, he refused to wear the mask and was summoned to be issued against him on a trespassing charge. 

As per the ABC News reports, he also claimed that a school board meeting, which was later to be held, was canceled precisely in retaliation for his not wearing a mask. A lower court had ruled that he didn’t have a standing to bring the lawsuit; hence, he further appealed. 

Murray-Nolan had testified before lawmakers on her skepticism around masking effectiveness after attending an early 2022 Cranford school board meeting without wearing one, despite a requirement for them. 

After less than a month, she was arrested on a defiant trespass charge at the next board meeting for attending the conference without a mark. According to the lower court ruling, there was probable cause for officers to arrest her due to failing to wear a mask as laid down under the laws during that period. She further appealed. 

Eric Harrison, an attorney for the officials named in the suit, praised the Court’s ruling on Tuesday. In a statement shared via email, he wrote 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,” reported by ABC News. 

New Jersey’s statewide order for public masking in schools ended in March 2022, shortly after the incidents described in the suits. 

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