Disinformation | Prior Restraint

Newark Warns False Reporting of Coronavirus “Will Be Criminally Prosecuted”

Coronaviruses as they appear under an electron microscope. CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy

In an attempt to tamp down on misinformation about the coronavirus, Newark’s Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose released a statement on March 11th warning that any false reporting about the presence of the virus in Newark could result in criminal prosecution.

“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. The State of New Jersey has laws regarding causing a false public alarm and we will enforce those laws.” the statement reads. 

The statement includes a phone number that people can call to report “suspicious activity.” 

The law mentioned in Ambrose’s statement, NJ Rev Stat § 2C:33-3 (2014), targets individuals who knowingly spread false public alarms. 

“… 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.”

PEN America’s Director of U.S. Free Expression Programs Nora Benavidez called Ambrose’s approach “misguided” in a statement on the PEN America’s site.

“Advising people to take care in sharing reliable and fact-based information about coronavirus makes good sense. Threatening criminal prosecution for spreading misinformation in a time of great confusion, on the other hand, is both wrongheaded and likely unconstitutional. Local leaders must prioritize protecting public health and providing credible information, but they can do that without threatening to tread on the public’s rights,” Benavidez said. 

As news of the viral outbreak spread, a number of conspiracy theories, bogus cures, and xenophobic speculations have popped up across the Internet. 

“As the coronavirus has spread across the world, so too has misinformation about it, despite an aggressive effort by social media companies to prevent its dissemination,” The New York Times said in an article published on March 8th about tech companies’ attempts to halt widespread disinformation. 

Other officials have taken similar measures to curtail the spread of misinformation. For example, The Verge reported that New York Attorney General has ordered notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to stop advertising phony cures for the virus on his website.

“Mr. Jones’ public platform has not only given him a microphone to shout inflammatory rhetoric, but his latest mistruths are incredibly dangerous and pose a serious threat to the public health of New Yorkers and individuals across the nation,” the attorney general cautioned on March 12th, adding “If these unlawful violations do not cease immediately, my office will not hesitate to take legal action and hold Mr. Jones accountable for the harm he’s caused.” 

 The Hill  Techdirt