Why are parents (and Grace Smith) suing the governor?
The Reporter presents a deep dive into Grace Smith’s conspiratorial lawsuit, and what it tells us about the scientific misinformation underpinning the anti-mask, anti-vaccine movement in Wyoming.
Parents across the state have joined Laramie resident Grace Smith in suing the governor, public health officials and school districts that have acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic and taken actions to reduce transmission of the virus.
The lawsuit seeks to end all government-backed social distancing, testing, mask and vaccine requirements across the state.
The suit is rife with scientific misinformation and typographical mistakes, and takes on a conspiratorial tone as it alleges that both Gov. Mark Gordon and the media exaggerated the threat of COVID-19 to institute a “new normal.”
The lawsuit alleges, for example, that Gordon is attempting “to maintain the illusion that there is such a serious health threat to Wyoming citizens that communist totalitarian tactics must be used and the very fabric of society must be permanently changed.”
The suit opens with back-to-back quotes from Albert Einstein and C.S. Lewis. As the Casper Star-Tribune reports, many of the citations are not from credible, scientific sources, but from right-wing blogs and opinion sites. The narrative occasionally dips out of a third-person perspective into a first-person account with the sporadic use of “we” and “us.” And the text repeatedly refers to a “SARP-CoV-2” virus, when in fact the virus in question is “SARS-CoV-2” — one example of the rampant spelling and grammar mistakes found throughout the document.
It’s not clear how the lawsuit will be treated in a court of law, or whether its 14 claims for relief — including an injunction on all preventative measure mandates — stand any chance of being granted.
But the lawsuit does shed light on the arguments and development of the anti-mask movement now familiar to every school district in the state.
Voicing concerns, alleging conspiracies
The pandemic has been a stressful time for nearly everyone. This is clear from some of the heartfelt parent testimonies collected throughout the lawsuit’s narrative.
Various parents from school districts across the state describe the difficulties their children are having amid the new requirements in schools. A grandparent in Torrington describes the challenges masks pose to their dyslexic grandchild. A parent of two in Cheyenne describes the discomfort their asthmatic child feels when wearing a mask, and illustrates how many children seem to be drinking less water, even occasionally passing out because of dehydration.
Research shows that mask-wearing does not typically hurt children’s learning and emotional development — as parents feared earlier in the pandemic — though it’s still possible that individual children, especially those who are already struggling, might have a rough time getting used to new requirements. (Mask wearing can also be uncomfortable, but does not inhibit breathing or oxygen flow for healthy adults and children.)
Jessica McComb is a Laramie parent with two children attending Albany County School District No. 1 schools. In the lawsuit, she alleges that her child, in refusing to wear a mask, has faced bullying from other students, teachers and community members.
“DR struggles with emotion and behavior regulation, fine motor, sensory processing and communication skills,” the lawsuit states. “Additionally, DR has a medical diagnosis of encopresis. Under normal circumstances, he struggles to learn and manage stressful life events. The mask mandate has caused further delays, stress and relapses in his conditions.”
But McComb’s testimony also demonstrates a turn found in many of the lawsuit’s personal accounts. Almost all of the testimonies collected in the lawsuit shift from parental concern to allegations of nefarious motives on the part of teachers, school administrators, public health officers and the governor.
“His teachers and everyone around him are masked, void of emotion and forced to create isolating environments,” McComb’s affidavit states.
Grace Smith — the former Laramie High School student who was arrested for trespassing after refusing to wear a mask — is one of the petitioners behind the lawsuit and the only minor to be named throughout the document.
Her account also attributes nefarious motives to the school administrators bringing or enforcing mask mandates.
“Their very words and actions scream their sentiment: We can ignore any law we choose if and when Petitioner G. Smith and/or her father exercise their constitutionally protected rights,” the lawsuit states. “Superintendent Yennie et al. intentionally and blatantly went out of their way in an attempt to convert (sic) the exercise of rights into punishable criminal action.”
Members of the Albany County School Board have repeatedly spelled out their intentions and motivations in passing and extending a mask mandate for Albany County Schools. They have pleaded with parents — especially those opposed to the mandate — to understand that their decision is based on the best available science and a duty of care for the children in their schools.
“There’s an unwritten expectation that the parents, guardians and caretakers of students have … that they are returned to you healthy, unharmed and safe,” Trustee Lawrence Perea said during a September meeting. “This is not about masks. This is not about a cultural war. This is about me fulfilling that obligation.”
Many of the petitioners attached to the lawsuit appear not to buy that explanation. That might be because nearly all petitioners express a disbelief in the severity of the pandemic or the threat posed by COVID-19.
Downplaying the pandemic, denying “an emergency”
One main contention of the lawsuit is that Governor Gordon has fabricated — or at least exaggerated — the threat posed by COVID-19, allegedly in effort to pass more restrictive laws via executive orders.
The result has been the denial of basic constitutional rights, the lawsuit alleges.
“These fundamental rights are being denied, not out of prudence; they are being denied due to unfounded fear and intentional manipulation,” the lawsuit states.
In fact, Gordon has passed fewer restrictions than nearly every other governor in the United States. He was one of the few governors to never issue a shelter-in-place order during the first spring of the pandemic. Medical professionals and school board trustees alike have openly criticized Gordon for what they see as a lack of leadership. He left decisions on mask mandates up to individual school districts. And even now, he is preparing a lawsuit against the federal government, hoping to stop the new vaccine mandates coming down from Washington, D.C.
But any measures taken to combat the COVID-19 pandemic are inherently problematic if no pandemic exists, the lawsuit argues.
“There is no medical emergency that justifies the use of Respondents’ policies requirements/mandates as it applies to Pre-Kindergarten through Twelfth Grade,” the lawsuit asserts.
There is indeed a public health emergency in Wyoming, as in the rest of the United States and much of the world. Wyoming hospitals are overwhelmed; individuals are waiting longer to be seen when they have emergencies and elective surgeries are being delayed. Natrona County’s Public Health Officer said he has only seen elective surgeries delayed twice in his 30-year career — right now amid the delta spike, and during the winter spike last year — both because of COVID-19.
The lawsuit falsely claims that face coverings “serve no medical purpose.”
But the best and most recent research clearly demonstrates that masks make a difference and reduce transmission. Additionally, the more people in a community who mask up, the safer that community is. The same holds true for the specific context of schools — and research showing as much, published just last month, was held up by Albany County School Board members as justification for extending their mask mandate.
Perhaps the most egregious misinformation in the lawsuit involves the state’s death toll. The lawsuit boldly asserts that “... at no time has the virus ever posed a substantial risk of a significant number of human fatalities or incidents of permanent or long-term disability to Wyoming citizens generally.”
The lawsuit admits that the death toll as of Oct. 1 was 996 (or 969 as it asserts later on the same page, an apparent typo) — though it suggests, baselessly, that these numbers are exaggerated.
Indeed, the death toll on Oct. 1 was 996, according to Wyoming Department of Health figures. Nearly 1,000 residents who would probably otherwise be alive if not for the coronavirus is significant on its own. But the past month has cast even more cold water on the claim that the virus has never “posed a substantial risk of a significant number of human fatalities.”
By Nov. 2, just one month later, the death toll had jumped to 1,243. Nearly 250 people — or 20 percent of the entire pandemic death toll — have died in about the past month. Wyoming’s death toll is now greater than the population of several towns.
Those deaths are often horrific; ICU doctors have described watching patients fight for air, isolated from the family members who would otherwise be at their side.
These deaths are also preventable. Since vaccines reduce one’s chances of catching and spreading the virus — and do an even better job of reducing a breakthrough case’s chances of needing hospitalization — almost all the COVID-19 patients staying and dying in hospitals today are unvaccinated.
COVID-19 also induces “permanent or long-term disability” in many of those who survive. Long-haul symptoms include heart and breathing problems that can make even simple aerobic activities like walking or going up a flight of stairs difficult.
Where does so much misinformation come from? And why would so many sign onto a lawsuit so full of it?
Seeking education, gaining misinformation
A consistent theme throughout the lawsuit’s many testimonies is that of self-education. Parents frustrated by their local school district repeatedly turn to the internet seeking insight into the politics and science of COVID-19.
Uinta County parent Tamara Weaver’s account contends that her child was being treated unfairly and unlawfully by being made to wear a mask. She went looking for information to support that claim, the lawsuit states.
“Understanding that what was being done was both unlawful and morally wrong, Petitioner Weaver started educating herself in an effort to find a solution to address DW’s dreadful situation and treatment,” the lawsuit states.
Sheridan County parent Tiffany Leimback’s account alleges that her children experienced “mistreatment” and “child abuse” as Leimback made several failed attempts to get them exempted from the mask requirements.
“Petitioner Leimback began educating herself on the politics of COVID-19,” the lawsuit states.
Green River parent Laura Pavey also went looking for answers.
“At this point, Petitioner Pavey began to educate herself on Covid and the school district’s policies,” the lawsuit states. “Petitioner Pavey learned that things about the pandemic were not adding up.”
These are just some of several examples throughout the lawsuit that highlight self-directed efforts on the part of parents to educate themselves, or to find information that would support their beliefs.
While there are good sources of information — the CDC, the World Health Organization, the Wyoming Department of Health, and several credible, non-partisan media outlets and YouTube channels — there is also a mountain of misinformation one can find.
Misinformation has been a problem throughout the pandemic, as actors in the media and political sphere have spread false claims about alternate cures, the effectiveness of masks or vaccines, or the ultimate motives of those who support mandates.
This misinformation is largely coming from right-wing sources. It is no coincidence that Sen. Anthony Bouchard (SD-06) and former White House strategist Steve Bannon were among those to signal boost Grace Smith’s campaign against her school district’s mask policy.
Republicans — especially those to the far-right — have spread misinformation throughout the pandemic. And the toll of that misinformation is being felt more in red states than in blue. There is now a large gap between the death toll in red states and the death toll in blue states, as those in Trump-supporting counties are more likely to die of COVID-19 than those in Biden-supporting counties.
Wyoming continues to be one of the least vaccinated states and one of the worst hotspots for the pandemic.
New details on Grace and Andy Smith
Finally, the lawsuit offers insight into Grace and Andy Smith’s campaign to fight Albany County Schools’ mask mandate, opening a window into a few chaotic days at Laramie High School.
Grace Smith’s account states she was bullied for her ardent anti-mask stance, being called a “murderer” and vulgar names as she protested outside the school. The lawsuit even states she was hit in the head with a baseball. In another incident, before getting kicked out of class, the lawsuit alleges that a teacher tried to force a mask onto her face.
But the account also repeated misinformation about the effectiveness of masks, claims that Grace Smith was “specifically targeted,” and alleges that those enforcing the mask mandate are doing so out of a thirst for power.
“Petitioner G. Smith would like to be able to continue and finish her education with her friends, but the totalitarian dictatorship mentality of ACSD#1 Superintendent Yennie et al. has made such impossible,” the lawsuit states.
Andy Smith, Grace’s father, is also a petitioner on the lawsuit. His account describes his initial hands-off approach to his daughter’s decision not to mask. But he soon got more involved, looking “into the legality of the policy” and claiming to find that “such policy is in direct violation of the Wyoming constitution.”
Andy Smith began calling authorities at the state and local level, asking each to show how they could allow a school district to pass a mask mandate. He and some other relatives started approaching school officials, including Superintendent Jubal Yennie.
The lawsuit describes Andy Smith’s bewilderment that his explanation of what he saw as a violation of law was not convincing to any of the school officials he talked to.
“Once disciplinary action began to take place on September 30th, every person Mr. Smith met with, was informed that their actions were in direct violation of the Wyoming Constitution and an infringement on his and his daughter’s rights,” the lawsuit states. “Totally ignoring and in spite of the fact that each and every individual was put on notice of the rights violation, the High School personnel proceeded to enforce their disciplinary actions … ”
Andy Smith is not a lawyer and is being represented in this lawsuit by Nick Beduhn, a Buffalo attorney who — as the Casper Star-Tribune reports — lost his ability to practice law for two-and-a-half years starting in 2017.
Originally, Andy Smith had said he would be represented by Cheyenne lawyer Cassie Craven, but Craven is not involved in this lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that constitutional rights are being trampled by state and local authorities, who are fabricating or exaggerating the threat and scope of the pandemic. It doesn’t back down from using terms such as “totalitarian dictatorship” or “communist” — so it mirrors rhetoric cropping up in school boards across the country about critical race theory.
Whether it’s CRT, COVID-19 prevention measures, or the contents of a school’s library, school boards across the U.S. have become political battlegrounds, driven by the sorts of disinformation campaigns that one can readily find online.
Many of the Wyoming parents bringing this lawsuit and fighting mask mandates at school board meetings have “educated” themselves on issues related to COVID-19. Most do not specify their sources, but the information they have uncovered is not supported by the best available public health research.
Masks and mask mandates work to reduce transmission of COVID-19 — a disease that is currently pushing Wyoming’s hospitals to capacity and has killed nearly 250 state residents in the last month alone. Nationwide, the U.S. has seen more than 750,000 deaths, or more than 1 out of every 500 Americans.
But the lawsuit and other arguments offered against school mask mandates are frequently grounded in misinformation, and completely at odds with the scientific consensus on masks, vaccines or the spread of COVID-19.