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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

First Amendment Audits

On a quiet Friday at a city hall in Minnesota, a man walked into the lobby holding a smart phone. He appeared to be video recording as he went up to the receptionist and then walked around the lobby. When city staff asked if they could help him, he would only say he was an independent reporter.

He continued recording as he walked outside around city hall, occasionally putting the phone’s camera lens up to a window. Then he went to the parking lot and appeared to be recording every car—and his actions made it appear he was recording the license plate numbers.

City hall staff called the police department. A uniformed officer asked the man what he was doing and asked for some identification. The man said he was a reporter and did not respond to additional questions as he continued recording.

What’s going on? Most likely, this was a “First Amendment Audit.” This person is testing the city hall staff and police department to see if they will respect his First Amendment right to video record in public areas. In our story, the city staff and the police officer ignored him, and he eventually went away. The staff handled the situation well and didn’t “take the bait.”

This activity is not limited to Minnesota. A recent article posted by the Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Association (CIRSA) provides more background and guidance.

We encourage your staff to prepare for an “audit,” as it can be somewhat unnerving if you don’t know what is going on. Be sure staff understands what are public areas and what are not, as well as what actions would warrant calling the police department. Another good tip is to have two staff members approach the person. The second person is there for support and to document what happened. Being prepared can turn your “audit” into a non-event.

Up next: TSO 2.0

Stay safe,
Rob