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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Warns Maryland Officials Not to ‘Weaponize’ COVID-19 Restrictions to Suppress First Amendment Rights of Protesters

ROCKVILLE, Md. — The Rutherford Institute is warning government officials not to weaponize the COVID-19 health crisis in order to justify carrying out surveillance on and retaliating against persons who exercise their First Amendment rights to publicly protest government misconduct in a manner consistent with “social distancing” guidelines. The Institute issued its warning after officials reportedly threatened a Maryland family with up to a year in jail and a $5000 fine if they attempt to publicly assemble and protest the murder of 21-year-old Duncan Lemp, a software engineer and Second Amendment advocate, who was gunned down in his bedroom during an early morning, no-knock SWAT team raid on his house.

“Surveillance and retaliation—the tactics of police states—have no place in a society that protects the right to speak out against the government in the pursuit of justice,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “While the country is dealing with a public health emergency, martial law has not been explicitly declared and the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution have not been suspended. As such, citizens remain free to exercise those rights, including the rights of assembly and speech.”

At 4:30 a.m. on March 12, 2020, a Montgomery County SWAT team executed a no-knock warrant at the residence of Duncan Lemp. The warrant, which was based on an anonymous tip, authorized the seizure of firearms that were alleged to be illegally possessed by Lemp, a software engineer and Second Amendment advocate. In the course of storming the residence, police shot and killed Lemp. Although a statement by county officials about the incident asserted that police announced themselves and fired their weapons after Lemp confronted them, Lemp’s girlfriend, who was with him at the time, refuted the claim, insisting that police did not announce themselves and that Lemp was shot while lying in bed. Because of these and other inconsistencies and omissions from the County’s account of the raid, Lemp’s family has demanded that the County produce evidence relating to the raid, such as the warrant application and police body-cam footage.  However, officials have not produced the requested materials and have refused to respond to press inquiries. Access to records relating to the warrant have also been blocked by a seal order and then by court closures resulting from the COVID-19 public health orders.

Because of their inability to obtain information about the shooting, Lemp’s family, friends and supporters planned to hold a public demonstration to protest police violence and the County’s lack of transparency. After monitoring the Lemp family’s social media and learning of their plans to protest the shooting, County officials reportedly warned Lemp’s family that any planned protest would violate the Governor’s “stay at home” orders and could result in imprisonment of up to one year and a $5000 fine. Pointing out that engaging in First Amendment activities in compliance with “social distancing” guidelines poses no greater risk to public health than other activities allowed under Gov. Hogan’s orders limiting gatherings, Rutherford Institute attorneys have warned County officials that their preemptive attempts to shut down the protest constitute an abuse of authority that imposes an unwarranted chill on the exercise of First Amendment rights.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, educates the public about threats to their freedoms, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated, and strives to make the government play by the rules of the Constitution.

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