Not wearing mask during COVID-19 outbreak isn’t protected by free speech, court rules


A federal appeals court in New Jersey ruled Monday that residents’ refusal to wear face masks at a school board meeting during the COVID-19 pandemic is not protected as a free speech right.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in two similar cases that stemmed from lawsuits against officials in Freehold and Cranford, New Jersey. The plaintiffs refused to wear masks during public meetings and they say they were retaliated against by the school board, The Associated Press reported.

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, federal, state, and local governments scrambled to implement policies to control the spread of the disease. These measures–which included mandates to wear face masks in public indoor spaces such as schools, businesses, and restaurants–spawned skepticism and debate,” the court wrote in its ruling Monday. “Some objectors voices their discontent online, some turned to their elected representatives, and some asked the courts to intervene.”

The court sent one case, by George Falcone, back to a lower court and said in the other lawsuit, by Gwyneth Murray-Nolan, that the plaintiff failed to show that she was retaliated against.

While the cases were dismissed for different reasons, the court ruled that “like all courts to address this issue,” refusing to wear a protective mask required by health and safety orders during a public health emergency is not protected as a First Amendment right.

“Skeptics are free to–and did–voice their opposition through multiple means, but disobeying a masking requirement is not one of them,” the ruling said. “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.”

New Jersey’s statewide order for public mask wearing in schools ended in March 2022, shortly after the incidents in the lawsuits, the AP noted.

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