All’s fair in love and upholding the First Amendment, right? Not quite.
It may seem odd for a newspaper to take a stand against so-called “First Amendment Auditing,” because the First Amendment is the only reason we’re allowed to exist, especially in a society whose major players – be they government entities or private corporations – would much rather have their secrets stay hidden from the public eye.
However, in light of one of these audits occurring recently at the Tax Collector’s office in Warwick, it has given us the perspective that, while the supposed mission of upholding First Amendment rights and keeping police forces honest is a noble one, the practices of certain “auditors” reveal a much different, less praiseworthy goal.
As all too often seems to be the case, the actual goals behind many of these First Amendment Auditors appears to be nothing more than gathering attention and notoriety, which ultimately leads to money through advertising revenue online.
As explored in the front-page piece in today’s Beacon, the individual responsible for Warwick’s recent incident is well known around Rhode Island for similar activity. In watching many of his videos on his YouTube channel, a template for performing his version of an audit becomes quite clear, and it is as follows.
Step 1 – Venture into public places where filming is technically legal, but is also out of the ordinary. This is purposeful, since it will naturally make people uncomfortable and on alert. We would argue suspicion of such behavior is reasonable, as randomly and silently filming within a place like a tax collector’s office is by no means a normal human behavior that would be experienced on any given day.
Step 2 – Refuse to answer employees’ questions about what they are doing. Auditors claim that this ensures an audit is “authentic,” because there is no legal obligation to explain why they are filming in a public place. However, they are also well aware that doing so would de-escalate many of these situations right away and, likely, result in nobody particularly caring about being filmed – which is not the goal. Instead, they stay silent, obviously hoping for the situation to escalate.
Step 3 – The police are called. This is the first response financially-minded auditors are seeking, as they maintain since they’ve “done nothing wrong” legally, that means nobody has a right to call the police, and now the public office has “failed” the audit for infringing on First Amendment rights. We would contend, though, that it is not unreasonable for a person to call the police if they feel they are potentially in danger – and why shouldn’t they, when an auditor bafflingly refuses to give any answers about their intentions? What really matters is how the police respond to that call.
Step 4 – The auditor refuses to cooperate with police, again under the notion they’ve “done nothing wrong,” which puts the police in a position of uncertainty. Even if the officers don’t try to stop the auditor from filming, the auditor will try to escalate things to generate that wanted reaction. In the video shot in Warwick, he continuously berates officers, calling them tyrants, scumbags, and referring to one officer wearing a tactical vest sarcastically as “Rambo.” Things can go multiple ways from here.
Step 5a – Police de-escalate the situation and leave without incident. This is the worst-case scenario for an auditor, as now they are forced to sensationalize an uneventful video in the hopes of still attracting viewers, which drives their revenue.
They may accuse officers of being incompetent and wasteful of tax dollars after simply showing up to the call, despite responding to calls being an obligation of their duties. In a separate video from the same auditor’s channel shot at a post office in Bristol, tastefully entitled “GESTAPO-LIKE OFFICERS ARRIVE!!!” the police calmly assess the situation for a few minutes before departing without any incident.
Step 5b – The police respond aggressively or arrest the auditor for either obstruction of justice (for refusing to give their name), or disorderly conduct, which is the ideal reaction for an auditor. In this scenario, they will not only generate more views due to being detained or arrested, they can file complaints and lawsuits against the municipality and individual officers.
If you’re still reading and are preparing to rally the troops to harass the Beacon for having this opinion – which would be quite ironic, considering we’re merely exercising our own First Amendment rights to free speech – rest assured, we think there is absolutely value to these audits as well, but within reason.
Police across the country have become emboldened by the knowledge that a vast silent majority of citizens will accept their actions, regardless of context, as righteous. This is problematic, and legitimately a cause for concern. We must always ensure that our rights are upheld and that officers who violate the basic tenants of their oath to order are held fully accountable. In that respect, we appreciate what some First Amendment auditors are trying to do.
What we do not appreciate is people who will purposefully attempt to agitate, berate and display a complete disregard for human decency in the hopes to generate YouTube views for their own profit. At that point, you are more of a threat to the First Amendment than you are helping it, as the poisonous apples of society are the ones who have the potential to spoil essential rights for the rest of us, as we have seen time and time again in our country’s history.
Purposefully engineering a situation where you appear suspicious, showing no respect or civility to your fellow humans and then berating officers who simply show up as part of their job is not a means to show that anyone has “failed” the First Amendment, it is a means to show that you have lost the essence of what may have once been a noble mission amidst a more selfish goal of personal financial gain.