Port: Fargo Police threaten criminal charges for those making coronavirus jokes

Whatever Fargo's expansive disorderly conduct ordinance might have to say on the matter, it's not actually illegal to be annoying.

New Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski addresses the local media with his vision for the future at Fargo City Hall on Monday, Oct. 5. David Samson / The Forum
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MINOT, N.D. — The debate over masking amid the COVID-19 pandemic has descended into the preposterous.

First, it was local governments issuing mandated recommendations for masks. That this is a complete contradiction in terms is apparently beyond the grasp of these elected leaders and their lawyers.

You cannot mandate a recommendation. Those two terms mean distinctly different things. There is a word used to describe the conjoining of two words that mean the opposite of one another, and it is "oxymoron."

The mandated recommendations for masks North Dakota's local governments are putting in place are oxymoronic.

Now, to prove there is no level of absurdity we're not capable of in 2020, the Fargo Police Department has taken to threatening criminal charges against those who might be inclined to make jokes about having coronavirus.


The statement came amid a thread of tweets posted on the FPD's official Twitter account. After acknowledging divergent views on masking and noting that Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney has mandated mask use "with the strongest possible recommendation," the threat goes on to suggest that"Anyone who finds it humorous to tell someone asking them to wear a mask that they have COVID and cough (or pretend to cough on someone else) may be found in violation of disorderly conduct under the City of Fargo Municipal Code 10-0301."

The posts say a violation of this ordinance is a class B misdemeanor.

EMBED: Fargo PD tweet masking

Admittedly, making the sort of joke these Twitter posts describe would be crass and humorless - please, don't do it, you aren't funny - I wonder, in this fraught moment, if the police department making public threats of criminal charges is conducive to the sort of outcomes we all want? Which are people wearing masks and, generally, in their public comportment, taking the COVID-19 outbreak seriously?

Whatever Fargo's expansive disorderly conduct ordinance might have to say on the matter, it's not actually illegal to be annoying. Coughing and pretending like you have coronavirus, as upsetting as that might be depending on the situation, is more than likely protected speech under the First Amendment.

As it should be.

Again, what we want is buy-in for masking and other measures to help fight the pandemic.


I'm not sure the Fargo Police Department's tweets are helpful to that end.

Still, in summary, please just wear a mask, and don't be a jerk about it.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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