- Officials in Newark, New Jersey, have threatened to criminally prosecute people who spread misinformation about the novel coronavirus.
- The announcement has prompted questions over free speech rights and whether such threats could suppress accurate information and vital warnings.
- Newark's Department of Public Safety noted that the state has laws around "false public alarm" it could use to prosecute people, though the law was intended for false warnings on threats such as fires, explosions, or bombs.
- New Jersey and the rest of the country have already experienced instances of coronavirus-related misinformation or fraud that has sometimes caused direct harm to consumers.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
The city of Newark issued a warning to its residents this week, threatening to criminally prosecute people who spread misinformation about the novel coronavirus sweeping across the country.
"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 Newark Department of Public Safety said in a statement.
The statement added that New Jersey has laws around creating "false public alarm" and intends to enforce them, particularly relating to false information posted on social media about the coronavirus.
Critics worry it could stifle free speech
The announcement has already sparked criticism and debate over free speech rights and whether or not the law could even be applied to coronavirus misinformation.
TechDirt noted that New Jersey's false public alarm law pertains specifically to false warnings of fires, bombings, or other emergencies that are "likely to cause evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transport, or to cause public inconvenience or alarm."
Arresting and charging residents could have other unintended consequences, such as the suppression or censorship of accurate information and vital warnings.
For instance, one of the first doctors to raise the alarm about the coronavirus in China was formally reprimanded by Wuhan police and forced to sign a form saying he made "false comments." Dr. Li Wenliang died after contracting the virus last month. He's since been hailed as a hero and prompted vehement criticism of the Chinese government.
Chinese censorship has been an ongoing battle throughout the coronavirus outbreak, with citizens and internet users fighting to keep information public about the country's early missteps in combating the epidemic.
Misinformation and hoaxes have spread during the outbreak
But New Jersey, and the rest of the US, has already seen instances of misinformation or fraud related to the coronavirus pandemic that has sometimes caused direct harm to consumers.
For instance, a 7-Eleven owner in the state was charged this week after prosecutors said she sold bootleg hand sanitizer that chemically burned at least four children.
The US Food and Drug Administration has already cracked down in recent days on companies hawking bogus coronavirus "treatments," such as teas, tinctures, or essential oils.
The agency has made clear there are currently no substances, drugs, vaccines, or other products that can cure or effectively treat coronavirus.
Most of the cases of COVID-19 have been reported in China. Globally, more than 127,000 people have been infected and at least 4,700 have died. The US has reported more than 1,350 cases and 38 deaths. New Jersey has reported 23 cases and one death.
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