We already went over this with Newark, NJ, but now Houston’s top law enforcement officer is falsely claiming he can and will prosecute people for making false statements about Houston’s COVID-19 response. It started with rumors on social media that the city was going to go into lockdown — which is not a crazy rumor given that plenty of other places in the country (and the world) have more or less done this exact thing already (including the entire state of California). But Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted that this was false information and he was asking law enforcement to investigate:
There is a video on social media of a person saying she was in a meeting with government officials confirming that there will be a city lockdown this weekend or Monday. All of this is false. I am asking HPD and Harris County DAs Office to investigate for possible prosecution.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo then responded to the mayor on Twitter, saying that the police “have launched an investigation” and something about “nation actors intentionally spreading misinformation.”
Now, it should be noted that we’ve written about Art Acevedo a few times now, including his ridiculously bad response to his officers completely botched a no knock raid that killed two innocent people. Acevedo, who came to Texas (first to Austin, then to Houston) promising “reform” and cleaning up police departments hasn’t always done such a great job of that — but you’d at least expect him to know how the 1st Amendment works.
But, no, that’s too much apparently. Also, when confronted on this… he trotted out the very wrong “fire in a crowded theater” line:
As a reminder, that line is not good law, and is the excuse most commonly used by bumbling idiots to defend unconstitutional censorship.
Even once a bunch of experts in this space piled on to point out to Acevedo he was wrong, he kept it up, with a ridiculous press conference in which he said that he had no time to debate 1st Amendment lawyers:
We have opened a multi-jurisdictional investigation. I had a 1st Amendment lawyer arguing with me on Twitter, and the mayor on his tweet. We’re not gonna debate the law. I’ll just say that the US Attorney’s Office is now involved in this investigation. Our federal partners are now involved in this investigation and we will prosecute anyone to the fullest extent of the law. I’ve been in touch with the DA’s office. I’ve been in touch with our federal partners. And the bottom line is that we have investigations ongoing.
Yeah, except (1) you can’t prosecute people for mere rumors on social media, and (2) saying that you are going to prosecute false information is incredibly dangerous because it stops people from sharing valuable and useful information if they’re afraid that it might not be fully verified. We saw this in China, where police went after the doctor who was trying to raise the alarm about COVID-19 and it silenced him and probably slowed worldwide (and local) attention to the risks of COVID-19.
Even more ridiculous, right before saying that he was going to prosecute people for false statements, Acevedo said (and I kid you not) that you shouldn’t listen to anyone on social media, but you should listen to the President — the very same President who has been a veritable fire hose of misinformation regarding COVID-19. Meanwhile, much of the good and useful information has been spreading by experts on social media, just as Acevedo is saying not to listen to any of it.
As it relates to the individuals who continue to spread false information: you should be ONLY listening to your elected officials, or to your appointed officials, for information on what is happening or is about to happen. If there’s a change, only believe it when you hear it from the Mayor, the judge, the Governor, the President or the people that they appoint for these type of responses.
Now, sure, you should listen to officials to get specifics on the official response, but mentioning the President at a time when he’s spewing so much disinformation and then immediately insisting that disinformation is criminal, is just crazy. Oh, and then he also insists that the misinformation is coming from foreign sources:
Secondly, the majority of this information, a lot of, it’s not just coming from individuals, but from nation states. I’m gonna repeat: nation states, that are purposefully putting out information that try to cause pandemonium. That try to get a reaction from the public.
Citation needed, chief. Yes, I’m sure that some information on social media is being put out by nation state trolls trying to wreak havoc. But “the majority” of it? Come on. Also, again, importantly, there’s been a ton of incredibly useful information and details on social media talking about how to best respond to this, from how to “flatten the curve,” how to stay safe, how to wash your hands, how to practice social distancing, even to the point of how to help make medical equipment to help protect medical professionals. Telling everyone not to listen to any of it and that you’ll prosecute people for posting that info is downright dangerous by itself.
I don’t expect everyone to understand the ins-and-outs of the 1st Amendment, but a police chief of a major city, certainly should.