While many agree that some media outlets have been hyperbolic in their speech reacting to Ebola during the past few weeks, certain language by the public about Ebola will not be shrugged off as an overreaction—it can be criminal.
On Oct. 13, a masked man and a woman entered a Los Angeles bus. They rode the bus for a few minutes before the man told the bus driver, “Don’t mess with me; I have Ebola!” Then, the man threw his mask on the bus floor and the two passengers exited the bus. The bus driver immediately took the bus to its station where the driver was quarantined and the bus was thoroughly cleaned, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars. Local police considered charging the man with making a terrorist threat.
This hasn’t been the only incident of people falsely claiming to have Ebola in public. The Los Angeles Times reported that there has been many false Ebola alarms at U.S. airports. Additionally, The Huffington Post cited numerous Ebola hoaxes, including three high school girls in California and a man flying from Philadelphia to the Dominican Republic.
Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor and blogger for The Washington Post’s Volohk Conspiracy, assessed the legal consequences of someone claiming to have Ebola. On his blog, Volokh said the words spoken on the California bus didn’t squarely fit as a true threat or fighting words (categories of unprotected speech) but that:
“The shouting is pretty clearly constitutionally unprotected, because it’s a knowing falsehood that has the potential to cause direct and substantial harm.”
Volokh alluded to the 2012 United States Supreme Court case of United States v. Alvarez in which the Court struck down a federal law that criminalized false statements about receiving military medals. Volokh said that as opposed to Alvarez, here, in the Ebola/bus situation, as long as the government enacted an appropriately tailored restriction, the government’s interest in safeguarding the public from a communicable disease is much stronger than protecting from dilution of a medal’s prestige.
In a later post, Volokh pointed out the California law that officials could use to charge the man on the bus. California Penal Code § 148.3 states: “Any individual who reports, or causes any report to be made, to any city, county, city and county, or state department, district, agency, division, commission, or board, that an ’emergency’ exists, knowing that the report is false, is guilty of a misdemeanor . . . .” “Emergency” is defined as any condition that results in the response of a public official or any condition that could jeopardize public safety or could result in the evacuation of any area.
A person claiming to have a communicable disease such as Ebola would be reporting an emergency that could jeopardize public safety and lead to an evacuation of the premises. In the Los Angeles bus example, the man’s words led to the bus being evacuated, the driver quarantined, and the authorities having to clean the bus.
So although dialogue and open conversation about Ebola should be encouraged, falsely claiming to have the disease could result in a criminal charge. Just as you shouldn’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater—in 2014, don’t shout “Ebola” on a crowded bus.