Two men walk into the Warwick Tax Collector’s office in the newly re-opened Buttonwoods Community Center and start filming people as they pay their taxes. They don’t answer questions from city employees inquiring what they’re up to, but they insist they will continue filming as per their First Amendment rights. A few residents are perturbed by their presence, and eventually the police are called in to assess the situation.
Such an incident occurred Friday in Warwick as two activists – one of which, Anselmo Morales-Torres (who was identified as being involved by Warwick police chief Rick Rathbun), has become somewhat notorious in Rhode Island for similar events – tested the limits of their rights to film public spaces.
“This is a publicly accessible area. This is the peoples' building. We pay for this,” said Morales-Torres to noticeably confused workers in the collector’s office. “You guys actually work for us. We don't work for you. You don't tell us what to do. You don't have that privilege.”
Employees eventually called Warwick Police. Officer Timothy Lipka arrived and informed the men they were allowed to film so long as they didn’t interfere with the daily operations of the office. However, he said he would remain on the scene to oversee the activity – much to the chagrin of the auditors.
Shortly afterwards, the video shows a woman – who took issue with the operators filming a man who requested not to be on camera – swear at and move towards Morales-Torres and swipe at his camera, which prompted Officer Lipka to escort Morales-Torres from the building, saying he was now causing an interference of the office’s operations. Neither of the cameramen were arrested or detained.
Morales-Torres then asks Officer Lipka why he was removed, saying that the woman was the aggressor who assaulted him while he was doing nothing wrong. Lipka maintained a calm demeanor throughout the video, despite verbal insults being thrown his way.
“I feel comfortable that I am acting within the realm of my duties,” Lipka said in the video.
“How many bad cops have you ever arrested? Obviously none, because you're one of them,” Morales-Torres retorted. “That lady just put her hands on me and you did nothing about it and you blamed me. She used foul language. She touched my camera.”
So, who is in the wrong here – if anybody?
It’s a situation that public employees and police around the country have had to grapple with increasingly in the last couple years, as so-called “First Amendment audits” have become more commonplace in municipal buildings and along public sidewalks in towns and cities across America.
The gist of these events basically boils down to this. An individual or group of people will enter a public building and begin filming without announcing their intentions or presenting any notice it will be occurring. In some cases, they film a building – often more restricted buildings, like military offices or prisons – and its operations from a public sidewalk or walkway.
If nothing of note happens – meaning they are left alone or aren’t asked to cease their activities – the public building and its employees have “passed” the audit. If police are called or the employees try to assert a prohibition of filming in the area, they have failed the audit. Regardless of the outcome, the videos are then posted to YouTube or other video streaming services for the public to view.
Such activities, according to auditors, come with a simple goal – to expose unlawful restrictions on First Amendment guaranteed rights of freedom of the press and the legal right to film activities within any public building or along any public walkway.
However, as executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU Steven Brown notes, there are limitations to these Constitutional protections.
“It depends on the specific circumstances,” Brown said Tuesday during a phone interview. “If they're trying to zoom in on personal financial information, that's one thing. But if they’re just recording activities in a public space, they have the right to do that, and law enforcement agents should recognize that.”
In the case of the incident in Warwick, Police Chief Rick Rathbun said that the possibility of the men filming sensitive financial data – they were filming people as they paid their taxes – was a factor in them being removed from the office area after the altercation occurred with a woman, who grabbed at Morales-Torres’ phone.
“Looking at the call log, it looks like Collector's Office folk were upset and the cameraman was escorted from that area, which makes sense because of the financial information,” Rathbun said, adding that filming anything within sight of the naked eye is protected, but being able to capture images and enhance them with a camera adds a shade of gray to those rights, particularly in an office such as a tax collector.
Brown agreed that there are important legal distinctions that can be made in regards to filming without causing a disturbance and filming in a way that disrupts the operations of the establishment.
“If they're sticking the camera in somebody's face and making it difficult if not impossible to go about the business that they're in the public space for, that raises concerns,” he said. “If they're trying to capture on film information that is private, that raises concerns too.”
However, the right to film isn’t necessarily revoked if people merely feel uncomfortable with the presence of a person filming in a public space.
“As a general law, your expectation of privacy is lower [in a public space] than if you're in a location generally considered private or personal,” Brown said. “[Limitations of their right to film] requires specific situations as opposed to just their being in a public space and recording when a person might not want to be recorded.”
Chief Rathbun said that the department doesn't have a set standard or procedure with how to respond to First Amendment audits, saying that they handle them on a "case by case basis" dependent on the facts of each incident.
Brown had a take of his own on how police should respond.
"The simplest thing to do in the absence of an actual obstruction or violation of the law is to just let them go about there business and ignore them," he said.
The man responsible for Warwick’s most recent “audit” is no newcomer to the game. Anselmo Morales-Torres, listed in previous media reports as a Providence resident, has been arrested twice in the past year – first for his filming outside of the RI National Guard headquarters in Cranston and then for filming within a restricted parking lot of the Woonsocket Police Department. Videos of both incidents were uploaded to his YouTube channel, “Auditing America,” which (along with videos providing updates on the Cranston incident) have garnered nearly 450,000 views as of this writing.
Morales-Torres’ channel has a grand total of 82,301 subscribers and a cumulative 17.9 million views from 217 videos as of this piece, with multiple videos being uploaded each week since the channel was created on Oct. 7, 2018.
Although the monetization techniques of YouTube (which is owned by Google) are a notoriously difficult topic to pin down definitively, content creators that amass over 100,000 views regularly on their videos – as Auditing America does on a semi-regular basis – can generate anywhere from $500 to $5,000 per video, depending on the amount of ad impressions those videos generate through Google’s AdSense platform.
But you need not believe solely our analysis that there is a significant monetary incentive for these auditors, you can take it from Morales-Torres himself.
“I make very good money doing this, exposing uneducated people,” he said to a city worker after walking back into the collector’s office for a third and final time and after arguing back and forth with Warwick police. “So, you guys just made me some money. Thank you for the content.”
A glance through the Auditing America channel will reveal that generating interest through outrage is an essential part of the strategy to amass as many views – and therefore as much money – as possible. The Warwick incident, uploaded on Saturday, is titled “UNBELIEVABLE TYRANT ALERT!!!! 1st Amendment Audit!!!!” and has 115,000 views as of Wednesday. Others sport titles like “GESTAPO-LIKE OFFICERS ARRIVE!!!” and “OVERWEIGHT TYRANT PROTECTS BAD COPS!!!”
Chief Rathbun said he hadn’t viewed the video of the incident that occurred in Warwick for this very reason.
“Unless I have a specific reason to do so, I don't put money in their pockets,” he said.
Efforts to reach Anselmo Morales-Torres for comment were unsuccessful.