A recent court ruling has determined that a man who was arrested near the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was unjustly persecuted for a joke about authorities shooting people infected with the virus.
Waylon Bailey has endured over three years of anxiety since his arrest in March 2020, all because of a coronavirus joke he shared on Facebook.
“SHARE SHARE SHARE ! ! ! !” Bailey wrote in his post. “JUST IN: RAPIDES PARISH SHERIFFS OFFICE HAVE ISSUED THE ORDER, IF DEPUTIES COME INTO CONTACT WITH ‘THE INFECTED’ SHOOT ON SIGHT….Lord have mercy on us all. #Covid9teen #weneedyoubradpitt.”
This joke led to a felony terrorism charge, which Bailey claims devastated his life. Consequently, he took legal action against two employees of a Louisiana parish’s sheriff’s office. Although a district court judge initially dismissed Bailey’s claims, he persisted and appealed.
There “were no facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that Bailey’s post caused sustained fear,” the judges wrote. “No members of the public expressed any type of concern. Even if the post were taken seriously, it is too general and contingent to be a specific threat,” the judges declared.
“It was a huge weight off my shoulders,” Bailey told The Washington Post. “It just [reassured me about] all of the thoughts and stuff I had these past three years about if I’m overreacting, if it’s even worth it,” he added.
The Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office refrained from commenting. Bailey’s initial post was an attempt to bring some humor during the early days of the pandemic in the U.S. He drew a parallel between the pandemic and the zombie apocalypse depicted in the 2013 movie “World War Z” starring Brad Pitt. Bailey’s post humorously suggested that the sheriff’s office had given an order to shoot anyone infected with the virus.
However, Bailey’s attempt at humor was met with a severe response. SWAT team members from the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office descended upon his home in Alexandria, Louisiana, arresting him without a warrant. The authorities later justified their actions by labeling Bailey’s post as a terroristic threat. Although Bailey was released on bond the same day and the district attorney chose not to prosecute him, the incident had lasting repercussions. Bailey lost friends, deleted his social media and became reclusive.
Bailey’s lawsuit in September 2020 alleged that Detective Randell Iles and Sheriff Mark Wood violated his constitutional rights. However, U.S. District Judge David Joseph dismissed Bailey’s claims in July 2022. Joseph believed that Bailey’s post could have been intended to provoke unlawful actions.
Yet, the appellate judges disagreed with this assessment. They believed Bailey’s post, especially the reference to Brad Pitt’s fictional character, was clearly not a serious threat.
“The post did not direct any person or group to take any unlawful action immediately or in the near future,” the judges asserted and claimed “at worst, his post was a joke in poor taste, but it cannot be read as intentionally directed to incitement.”
The court’s ruling indicated that Iles had no valid reason to arrest Bailey and thus was not entitled to qualified immunity. The case will now be retried in district court. Ben Field, Bailey’s attorney, expressed confidence in the outcome, emphasizing the importance of respecting First Amendment rights online.
“It’s a great victory for Waylon and for the Constitution,” Field stated. “It clearly lays out that police have to respect First Amendment rights online, and that they can’t wantonly arrest people who make jokes about them.”
Bailey, who is a professional boxer, was training when he received the news of the court’s decision. The ruling brought him immense relief, and he hopes to move past this chapter of his life. He seeks compensation for damages, attorney fees and an apology from the sheriff’s office.
“I woke up with a much more blissful feeling,” Bailey expressed, “knowing the right decision was made.”
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