SERVING OUR CLIENTS AND COMMUNITY DURING COVID-19

Articles Tagged with first amendment

Nationwide, courts have responded  to COVID-19-related lawsuits and made novel decisions pertaining to cases arising from the failure to follow state and federal executive orders. Most recently, the New Jersey Superior Court denied a Defendant’s motion to dismiss for a lawsuit alleging assault and the infliction of emotional distress after she refused to follow the New Jersey mask mandate.  In denying her motion to dismiss, the New Jersey court voiced its opinion that Free Speech under the First Amendment does not extend to “maskless tirades”, especially during the peak of a global pandemic. 

In November of 2020, Lilach Kuhn, the defendant, entered Citibank’s Englewood, NJ branch without a mask in direct violation of Executive Order 122, enacted in April 2020, requiring face coverings in public spaces in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. Plaintiff, bank employee Sanaa Rami, approached Kuhn and reminded her of the requirement to wear a face covering. Ms. Rami was concerned for her own and others’ health and safety. In a viral video recorded by onlookers of the incident, the Defendant erupted in a fit of rage directed at Ms. Rami and refused to adhere to the face-covering mandate.  shouted at Ms. Rami saying “I am going to court to fight masks and you are not going to tell me what to do,” and “You work for me! I do not work for you! I have been a customer since 1990. Were you born then? Shame on you!.” When Rami offered to get her a clean mask, Defendant responded yelling, “Don’t make me wear your mask! Are you trying to kill me? What happens if you have corona[virus]?” and “I am a scientist! There is no corona[virus]!” 

First Amendment rights have been referenced in arguments throughout the nation in response to and challenging COVID-19 health and safety mandates , including the constitutionality of mandatory mask mandates. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many public health officials and politicians urged or required citizens to wear face-coverings to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. One of the most common arguments against these mask mandates is that they infringed on the individual’s Freedom of Speech under the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, press, petition, assembly and religion. This includes the right to express one’s opinions without government censorship or restraint. Freedom of speech does not include the right to incite actions that would harm others such as, as the Supreme Court famously opined in Schenck v. United States, shouting fire in a crowded theater. Accordingly, the right does not extend protection to obscenity, fighting words, and true threats. 

fullsizeoutput_42-300x169
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of a public employee who alleges she was terminated by her public employer for inquiring into a complaint that she had been illegally recorded during a conversation with a union leader.  In reversing the district court’s decision, the court reinforced the separation of a public employee’s speech in their capacity as a private citizen in comparison to what they say in their capacity as a public employee.  This case is a reminder that public employees do not waive their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment and have job protections when they engage in protected activity under the United States Constitution.  

In this case entitled Javitz v. County of Lucerne, the plaintiff, Donna Javitz’s was employed as the director of human resources for Lucerne County.  During her employment, Ms. Javitz’s alleges that she made a report to the district attorney that she had allegedly been illegally recorded when she met a union leader in her official capacity. The county manager told Javitz and the district attorney to drop the matter, but Javitz followed up with questions on the status of the investigation regarding the recording. Suddenly, her relationship with her employer became rocky and Javitz was abruptly terminated. Javitz claimed that her termination was in retaliation for reporting the alleged illegal recording to the district attorney. 

The county employer alleged that Javitz had been working within her capacity as a public employee when she was inquiring about the status of the investigation and therefore no First Amendment violation existed. The district court agreed and cited to the Lucerne County Code of Ethics as the source by which it found her conduct in reporting the illegal activity to be within her official capacity as a county employee. Because the action was within her duties as an employee, the District Court concluded that the report did not qualify as speech protected by the First Amendment. 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

HOLMDEL, NEW JERSEY (MAY 9, 2019)–The high school teacher who was blamed for a yearbook censorship controversy in Wall Township in 2017 filed a motion in the Superior Court in Monmouth County on Thursday, seeking immediate relief from a Board of Education (BOE) policy that has blocked her from being able to tell her full story to the media.

In her original lawsuit filed on May 6, 2019, Susan Parsons alleged she was framed by members of the school administration as the person responsible for digitally altering a student’s 2017 yearbook photo to remove a “Trump: Make America Great Again” logo from his shirt, a narrative she was unable to refute due to an ongoing BOE media gag order.

New Jersey’s State Policy Prohibiting Discrimination in the Workplace is considered amongst many New Jersey employment lawyers as being one of the least protective of employee rights in the entire country.  Unfortunately, the newest revisions proposed by the Civil Service Commission do not provide any meaningful improvement for State employees governed under the State’s anti-harassment policy, and particularly with respect to how it conducts investigations of claims of sexual harassment.  In fact, when it comes to New Jersey’s controversial “strict confidentiality directive” policy, the proposed changes make the New Jersey’s anti-harassment policy even worse for victims of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Much has been written over the past week regarding the Civil Service Commission’s attempts to strengthen the strict confidentiality directive.  While the Civil Service Commission’s proposed revisions could worsen the penalties for breach, the current version of the strict confidentiality directive in effect continues to require incidents of sexual harassment from the public. What many of the news reports seem to have missed is the devastating impact of the current strict confidentiality policy has and continues to have on silencing victims of sexual harassment.

The current strict confidentiality directive in place expressly threatens state employees with discipline up to and including termination if the state employee exercises his or her constitutionally protected right to speak out about allegations of harassment within the state workplace. A state employee who makes a complaint of harassment or discrimination, or is requested to participate in a discrimination or harassment investigation, is required under current state regulations and practice to keep all aspects of the investigation confidential.  This means, for example, that if a state employee is the victim of sexual assault or harassment at her state job and she complains about it to the State’s EEO/AA office, she is forbidden under current regulations and practice to tell a lawyer, a co-worker or even her spouse anything about what happened.  The strict confidential directive remains in place and every state employee must abide by it or be subject to discipline.  N.J.A.C. 4A:7-3.1(j), states:

Contact Information