New: Prosecutor says Howell woman who tweeted criticism of COVID misinformation won’t be charged

By: - March 10, 2022 10:51 am

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There will be no charges filed against a Howell woman who was investigated for cyberstalking after publicly calling out a nurse educator for spreading medical misinformation.

Kasey Helton was accused of harassment by Holly Austin, also of Howell, who filed a report with the Livingston County Sheriff’s Office in December after Helton posted a series of tweets that referred to Austin as “a pathetic purveyor of health misinformation.”

Kasey Helton | Courtesy photo

Austin is a nurse educator with Schoolcraft College who made public statements against masks and COVID-19 vaccines at both a meeting of the Livingston County Board of Commissioners and the Brighton Area Schools Board of Education. Those statements, which included that children should not get the COVID vaccination, were repudiated by Schoolcraft College, which later tweeted that Austin’s opinions did not reflect the institution’s views.

They also contradict long-established guidance from medical experts, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Nurses Association, the American Hospital Association, and the American Medical Association, all of which have said that masks, as well as vaccines, are both safe and effective in trying to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Michigan’s vaccination rate is 59.4%, lagging well behind the national average of 65.4%.

A referral was subsequently made to the county’s prosecutor requesting cyberstalking charges be filed against Helton. At the time, Sheriff Mike Murphy said his rationale for doing that was to seek guidance on how to handle similar cases in the future.

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

The case appeared to be in limbo after Prosecutor David Reader indicated in early January that per a request for additional information, the case remained under investigation by the sheriff’s office.

However, Chief Assistant Prosecutor Carolyn Henry confirmed for the Michigan Advance that they had decided not to pursue charges.

“The Livingston County Sheriff Department sent us the additional materials on the Helton investigation,” said Henry. “Based on review of those materials, our office did not authorize criminal charges in the matter.”

In response, Helton told Michigan Advance that while she was pleased the criminal investigation against her had been dropped, she firmly believed that it never should have proceeded to the level of recommending charges.

“I hold Livingston County Sheriff Mike Murphy directly responsible for that,” said Helton. “He attacked my first amendment rights, and in doing so placed an unjust burden on myself and my family in his attempt to silence me. In America, free speech rights are everyone’s rights, regardless of whether we agree or disagree.”

This was also the result predicted by Helton’s attorney Craig Tank in mid-December.

“They’ll decline the prosecution because of the problems that it would create for them.” Tank said if they were to file charges the prosecutor’s office would “in essence be … writing a blank check to my client as it relates to a civil rights violation.”

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

Murphy declined to comment for this story.

Austin also sought a personal protection order against Helton, but that was declined by a Livingston County judge in early January, who ruled that such an order was not warranted under the circumstances and would more properly be pursued as a civil action under libel or defamation. 

At that hearing, Austin stated she was in danger of losing her nursing license due to “hundreds of complaints” that had been made about her to state licensing authorities because of Helton’s posts. Austin claimed that if she didn’t get the PPO, Helton would “destroy” her. 

As the Advance reported earlier this week, the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) ruled that Austin did not violate public health codes by her public statements against masks and COVID-19 vaccines.

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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2021 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.

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