'Infectious' laughter: Man arrested for joking about COVID

Aviation Maintenance Administrationman Airman Hank Meskauskas, from Auburn, California, assigned to the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford's aircraft intermediate maintenance department, fires a 9mm pistol during a small arms sustainment qualification, April 15, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nolan Pennington)
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nolan Pennington)

A Louisiana man is fighting in court for the First Amendment right to express satire after he made a joke about COVID-19, and was arrested by a sheriff’s armed SWAT team that confronted him with guns drawn.

The Institute for Justice has confirmed it has taken up the case involving Waylon Bailey of New Orleans.

He had posted a joke online comparing the COVID-19 pandemic to a zombie apocalypse, and his Facebook friends all got the comedy.

But his post, using some pretty flamboyant language and references to the Brad Pitt zombie movie “World War Z,” also drew the attention of the local sheriff’s office.

His joke was that the sheriff’s officers had been ordered to shoot the “infected.”

(Image by Lino Lombardi from Pixabay)
(Image by Lino Lombardi from Pixabay)

The institute explained what followed: “Waylon was taken to jail and booked, but the absurd charge was dropped when a prosecutor reviewed the case. The arrest was plainly an overreaction and trampled Waylon’s free speech rights, but when Waylon brought a civil-rights lawsuit, the deputy responsible for the arrest was granted qualified immunity. To add insult to injury, the court also said that Waylon didn’t have any free speech rights to make a joke in the first place. Now, Waylon is appealing this decision with the help of the Institute for Justice (IJ), which defends First Amendment rights and challenges immunity doctrines nationwide.”

Explained Ben Field, a lawyer for the institute, “The First Amendment protects your right to tell jokes, even if you upset the government. Officials need to be held responsible for how they treated Waylon. His arrest was unnecessary, dangerous and a violation of his First Amendment rights.”

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It seems that there were no complaints to the sheriff’s office about the posting, but the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office immediately assigned a detective to investigate.

The detective, “based only on reading the post,” said Waylon had committed a crime, “even though he didn’t know anybody who had actually been frightened or even concerned by the post,” the institute explained.

“I made a joke that lots of other people were making at the beginning of COVID and if the deputies didn’t like it, they could have called and asked me to take it down,” Waylon explained, in a statement released by his lawyers. “Instead, they decided to come with guns drawn, handcuff me and take me to jail. What happened to me was wrong, but no one has been held accountable.”

The district court judge, in granting the officers protection from any punishment for their actions, “reached back to discredited cases from the World War I era” to say that it was “reasonable for police to treat a zombie joke as an act of terror,” the institute said.

Waylon now is seeking a reversal from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“It’s not a crime to make a joke online,” said IJ lawyer Caroline Grace Brothers “If the police can use their authority to arrest someone for making a joke at their expense, everyone’s rights are at risk.”

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