Op-Ed: Don’t Joke About the Coronavirus

Airmen on-board an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III during training to safely transport patients with diseases like novel coronavirus. Photo credit: Senior Airman Cody R. Miller, via the U.S. Air Force.

Twenty years ago, when I founded the Express Gay News, the predecessor to the South Florida Gay News, one of our young delivery drivers brought a large carton of papers to a local UPS office for our weekly shipment to the Key West Business Guild. 

He was a kid, a prankster, and oblivious to the Anthrax scares gripping the U.S. at the time. He had no clue that the Enquirer newspaper office building in Lantana had to be vacated, or that most Americans were paralyzed by fear just opening their mail — the same way we are now with the spread of Covid-19.

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All he had to do was leave the papers there, declare there was nothing hazardous in the box, and continue with his route. But when asked what was in the package, he joked, Anthrax, what do you think?” His new route almost took him to the Broward County Jail. 

Joking about being a carrier of a lethal pathogen which is easily transmissible to third parties can be a crime subjecting you to arrest and prosecution under federal anti-terrorism laws.  Whether in person or by a cyber threat, the law does not deem it a hoax or a joke.

Already, in California, a Walmart shopper in California has been arrested for purposely sneezing and coughing on heads of lettuce, laughing to shoppers saying she had the COVID-19 virus. Bad mistake. We still have free speech in America, but ever since we were kids, teachers taught us you can’t yell  fire” in a crowded theater.

Even with a First Amendment ever so absolute, there have been legislative limitations on free speech upheld by courts for reasons of public safety and necessity. 

Let me be the lawyer delivering you some ice-cold facts and real burning truths.

Years ago, a famous closeted movie star, Rock Hudson, passed away from complications due to his having the AIDS virus. He had never disclosed his serostatus to his lover of 10 years, despite routinely having an ongoing and unprotected sexual relationship with each other.  Back then, in 1986, his estate got sued.

Fuck someone today without revealing your seropositive status to them first and you can be more than sued. You can go to jail. It’s a crime. If you know you are living with corona and do the dirty with your date du jour tonight, you can be doing it in jail with bubba tomorrow.

Very simply, there is a law on the books which states that you can be charged by having intercourse with someone and failing to disclose to them you are HIV positive. Accordingly, so too can you be charged criminally or sued civilly if you are knowingly carrying the COVID-19 and even jokingly give your “best buddy” a wet kiss on the lips.

The coronavirus is no longer a laughing matter. It’s an easily transmissible deadly disease which is gripping the globe with fear and panic. When we first heard of it, we all made jokes like Oh yeah, my roommate had the coronavirus last week. This week it’s the Michelin, Heineken, and Busch Light viruses.” Not anymore.

Folks, the jokes are no longer laughable; the consequences no longer funny. Just as you dont want to tell a TSA agent at airport security that you have a bomb in your briefcase, dont joke to someone that you sneezed on as a prank that you are carrying a deadly virus. Be smart, not stupid.

Free speech may have no limits, but your words sure can have consequences. Remember, the underlying criminal act is not necessarily prosecuted based on what you intended to do, but rather what type of imminent fear you created for the other party, the would-be recipient of your joke. It’s common sense, but after 45 years of being a criminal defense lawyer, I find with some clients it is very rare.

Of course, there are always defenses. I come up with them all the time — but at your expense. Do you really want to be paying for thousands of dollars for bondsmen and criminal defense lawyers because you wanted to pull off a stupid prank or tell a bad joke? Look, I will get you out of jail as soon as your sentence is up, but it may cost you a small fortune.

We are living in tough times. Let’s not make them tougher.  If you are sick, get better. Here is some free legal advice, though. Do not — do not do something sicker that makes it worse for everyone, including yourself.

 

 


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