A Howell woman tweeted criticism of COVID misinformation. Police launched a probe.

‘It’s difficult to recognize this is happening in the United States of America,’ attorney says

By: - December 15, 2021 5:21 pm

After a second dose of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine, a swarm of antibodies attacks the virus. | Kateryna Kon/Science Photo Library via Getty Images

After a Howell woman posted a series of tweets calling out health care workers for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 at public meetings this month, the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation into her that her attorney said has a “chilling effect on free speech.” 

Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy confirmed in an interview with the Advance Wednesday that his office conducted an investigation into Kasey Helton after an individual told police they felt “threatened, intimidated and harassed” by Helton. Police would not disclose the identity of the person.

The investigation came after Helton posted videos of nurses promoting misinformation about the pandemic during meetings of the Brighton Board of Education and the Livingston County Commissioners, including claims that masks do not protect people against COVID-19. 

 

Another tweet showed a video of a “Moms for Liberty” member calling on all members of the Brighton Board of Education to resign in light of discussion over a potential mask mandate in schools last week. The board ended up voting against the mandate. Moms for Liberty is a conservative nonprofit organization that has been fighting against mask and vaccine mandates across the country. 

Facebook reportedly booted 400 members from the Moms for Liberty’s Livingston County chapter earlier this month for bullying and spreading disinformation about COVID-19, according to group posts shared by others parents with the media. Facebook has restricted other Moms for Liberty social media accounts, including one in Macomb County.

Every major medical organization in the country — including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Nurses Association, the American Hospital Association, and the American Medical Association — have said masks, alongside vaccines, are a safe and effective tool in fighting the pandemic.

Murphy said the Helton investigation report has been sent to the Livingston County Prosecutor’s office, “where it sits.” 

Helton’s attorney, Craig Tank, said no charges have been filed against Helton, and he does not expect them to be. The Livingston County Prosecutor’s office did not return a request for comment.

“Somebody believes they should be able to criminalize opinions, and that’s just not the case,” Tank said. “This will die a slow death in the prosecutor’s office because no one wants to move on it.”

Tank added that the sheriff’s investigation into Helton “has a chilling effect on free speech, but I think that’s the intention.”

Helton, who deferred comment to her attorney for this article, lambasted police on social media.

“Frankly I am shocked the [Livingston County Sheriff’s Office] would play a role in this naked attempt to undermine my free speech rights … and silence dissenters of life threatening public policy measures during a deadly pandemic,” Helton wrote on Twitter after she announced she was being investigated Monday.

I know there are some folks who are miffed at the fact we did an investigation because it’s free speech, and I get all that, but at the end of the day when does the free speech line get crossed and become criminal?

– Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy

Helton also noted on Twitter that she has not “attempted to contact or encouraged others to contact” anyone she criticized on social media. 

“I have not approached any of these folks when in a public setting,” she wrote on Twitter. “I have not shared any private information that was not included in their already public posts.”

Murphy, who campaigned for former President Donald Trump in 2020, said he’s not attempting to infringe upon free speech.

“I know there are some folks who are miffed at the fact we did an investigation because it’s free speech, and I get all that, but at the end of the day when does the free speech line get crossed and become criminal?” said Murphy. “That’s what we’re looking for an answer on from the prosecutor’s office.

“This was an opportunity to send this to the prosecutor’s office and figure out what the prosecutor’s office is willing to prosecute,” Murphy continued.

This is not the first time Helton, whose Democratic candidacy for the Livingston County Commission garnered attack ads from local Republicans in 2018, has faced ire from anti-maskers. Earlier this year, members of a now-disabled Facebook group, named Unmask Livingston and Surrounding Areas, allegedly threatened Helton, WHMI-FM reported. Helton told WHMI that Unmask Livingston members published her personal information, including her phone number and her father’s phone number, and a Google map to her house because they believed she had infiltrated their Facebook group.

Anti-masking sentiments and misinformation have been prevalent throughout the pandemic and are largely rooted in rhetoric from Trump — who rarely wore them and consistently blasted them when the pandemic began during his last year in office. 

Attitudes towards masking have been overwhelmingly partisan, with 85% of Democrats backing masks in schools and 32% of Republicans doing the same, according to a September poll from Axios. In Livingston County — where Trump garnered 61% of the 2020 general election vote — anti-mask groups have been active in local politics and routinely hold protests against masking and vaccines.

After Helton posted about the investigation on Twitter Monday, Progress Michigan, a liberal advocacy group, announced Wednesday that the organization filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Livingston County Sheriff and Prosecutor’s offices seeking communication about the Helton case. 

Lonnie Scott, the executive director of Progress Michigan, called the Helton case a “direct attack on people’s right to free speech” and said “tweeting about public information is not a crime.”

Somebody believes they should be able to criminalize opinions, and that’s just not the case. This will die a slow death in the prosecutor’s office because no one wants to move on it.

– Craig Tank, attorney for Kasey Helton

“We want law enforcement in Livingston County to know that Progress Michigan and a lot of other folks across Michigan are paying attention to this and won’t stand by while our constitutional rights are trampled on, nor will we watch idly as law enforcement uses underhanded tactics to intimidate and silence those they disagree with,” Scott said in a prepared statement.

Should Helton be arrested on charges related to this case, her attorney said they would “have the kind of action that would be necessary for civil rights litigation.”

“As it sits now, she’s basically in limbo,” Tank said.

The attorney continued to call the investigation into his client “crazy.”

“We as Americans need to step back and take a deep breath. This is crazy. We all have political opinions. The idea that we’d criminalize someone with a different opinion is quite problematic. … It’s difficult to recognize this is happening in the United States of America. How did we get here?”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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