First Amendment Fail? Let’s Hope Not.

“Is it illegal to take a photo of a public building in your town?”
“What is your newspaper’s stance on the First Amendment?”
“Have you seen the video on YouTube this morning of people being denied their constitutional rights?”
“I’ll be watching to see how you report about this.”
“Do you know that police in your town illegally arrested a free citizen for taking a photo of a public building?”
That was how Wednesday, Jan. 2 began for me, as callers from several states contacted our newspaper office.
For the record, there is probably not a more enthusiastic supporter of the First Amendment in the small town of Versailles than me, the publisher of the local newspaper. My very occupation depends on First Amendment protections and I will vigorously defend those provisions.
I normally do not give any credence whatsoever to divisive things posted to social media because I just don’t want to get dirty in the cesspool of stupidity. In this case, however, curiosity got the best of me and I viewed the video mentioned.
The short, edited, version of the video leads the viewer to believe an innocent couple, simply taking a stroll near the Morgan County Justice Center and taking photos with their cell phones, was set upon by county and city law enforcement officers, their phones roughly seized, their rights denied, and handcuffs applied.
Before I continue, it should be known it is a protected right to take photographs and video of anything plainly visible in public spaces, including the outside of government buildings and to film public officials carrying out their duties. These activities are not illegal and, in most circumstances, provide a critical check and balance to the abuse of power.
As a member of the press, and in the exercise of my responsibilities, I need First Amendment rights protected. As a citizen, every person living in America needs those rights defended. We should be vigilant toward that end.
My first clue, however, that the motivation of this couple in the video was not likely so innocent was the title of the posted video as a “TYRANT ALERT!” and “FIRST AMENDMENT FAIL!”
I soon learned this video was typical of those recorded and posted by people who are self-proclaimed “free speech auditors.” These “auditors” (such as this couple from out of state hanging out around the Morgan County Justice Center) deliberately target places to set up a situation in hopes of “baiting” police officers into saying or doing something the “auditors” can then turn around to declare, “See?! Look how corrupt these cops are!”
The “auditors” and those who support their tactics then encourage, through social media, like-minded people to begin calling local government and law enforcement offices in protest.
As Wednesday went on, Morgan County dispatchers were inundated with phone calls, tying up emergency lines. The telephone lines at City Hall had to be screened because the ladies who work there were getting an earful of obscenities. The police department was handling the flood of malevolent communication as best they could. The prosecuting attorney and the city’s lawyer were spending valuable time putting out fires.
The “auditors” and their ilk are basically engaged in an organized effort of intimidation. Ironically, these same people post comments complaining the phones are not being answered in Versailles and use that as “proof” the government is conspiring to protect crooked cops.
The “auditors” and their followers shout “Bully!” and “Tyrant!” and “Terrorist!” while they are the ones bullying and terrorizing truly innocent local workers just trying to make a living in a free society.
Well, I waded a bit further into the cesspool and reviewed the string of comments below the posted video. Some comments urged the “auditors” to sue and cash in because of their being violated. Some comments disparaged Versailles as full of uneducated, backwoods, hillbillies. There were comments calling the officers all sorts of vile things, some even called for their outright execution.
Those who posted these comments are full of self-righteous, politically motivated hatred. I can’t describe it as anything else.
Anyway, the “long version” of the video (and reportedly surveillance footage) showed the couple entering into a posted area, refusing to answer initial questions as to their identity or activities, the woman bending to apparently place something near a transformer, and the man walking toward a window and filming alarmed and fearful clerks in the court offices, prompting them to turn the blinds (creepy).
The couple did have their phones confiscated. They indeed were detained. They also were later released and no charges were filed. Although the PA reported he had statutory grounds for charges of “making a terrorist threat – third degree,” he decided not to charge as a matter of prosecutorial discretion.
Could the officers responding to this situation have handled it differently? Perhaps in a few important, specific and limited ways. Was the couple within their rights to photograph/film? Yes, but only to a point.
I was asked by one caller from south Texas, after I mentioned I thought “baiting” tactics are underhanded. He argued that if it exposed corruption, those methods should be used. I replied there are enough bad things happening and plenty of bad people exposing themselves in this world to prove the caller’s point without resorting to unethical means.
Let’s hope nothing more comes of this episode, other than it serving as a lesson learned on all sides.
I am optimistic it won’t be a “First Amendment Fail” but a civil triumph.