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Government Building Security and the First Amendment Auditor

by Trish Lomonosov / November 15, 2023

First Amendment auditors are individuals who conduct video recordings and photography in government buildings or public spaces. They do so to test and document the protection of their First Amendment rights, which include freedom of speech and freedom of the press. 

In a society that values freedom of speech as a fundamental right, the delicate task of balancing this freedom with the need for security can be a challenging endeavor for government agencies. While free expression is essential for a healthy democracy, it is equally important to maintain public safety and order. 

Let’s take a look at what motivates First Amendment auditors and some appropriate ways government agencies can respond while also protecting the safety and security of their buildings and occupants.

Exploring the Motivation of First Amendment Auditors

First Amendment auditors often seek to ensure that public officials and law enforcement respect and uphold First Amendment rights when individuals are engaging in activities like photography and videography in public areas. 

These audits are typically conducted to bring attention to potential abuses of power, restrictions on the right to record in public, and issues related to transparency and accountability. Their motivation stems from a belief that citizens should be able to document and report on matters of public interest without unnecessary obstruction.

Additionally, First Amendment auditors are often motivated by a desire to educate the public about their constitutional rights. They see themselves as watchdogs, helping to shine a light on potential violations of those rights. The hope is that by conducting these audits and sharing their experiences through online platforms and social media, they can raise awareness and encourage public discourse on the importance of these fundamental liberties. 

When First Amendment Auditor Interactions Go Awry

Interactions between government officials and First Amendment auditors can sometimes go awry due to a lack of understanding, miscommunication, or differing perspectives on the boundaries of constitutional rights. 

In some instances, government officials may not be adequately informed about the auditors' rights to record in public spaces, leading to confrontations and attempts to prohibit filming. In other cases, First Amendment auditors can be overzealous, aggressive, and disruptive to government operations in their quest to uphold their First Amendment rights. 

First Amendment auditors may demand access to restricted spaces, may film in areas where visitors are entitled to health privacy, or may insist on obtaining the names of government officials employed in the building. 

Interactions between government employees and First Amendment auditors can easily escalate and lead to verbal or physical confrontations or law enforcement involvement. If government officials have better awareness regarding First Amendment rights and the appropriate steps to take if a First Amendment auditor enters their building, escalation can often be avoided.

5 Key Steps Government Agencies Can Take to Address First Amendment Auditors

Whether your government agency has dealt with a First Amendment auditor, or if this is new territory for your agency, there are key steps you can take to protect the security of your public building and the safety of its occupants while respecting the rights of the auditor. 

Establish Clear Policies and Procedures

Government agencies should develop comprehensive policies and procedures for handling First Amendment auditors to ensure a consistent, respectful, and legally compliant approach. These policies should be meticulously crafted to strike a balance between security and the protection of constitutional rights.

The First Amendment is not absolute. The strictest First Amendment protections apply in traditional public forums, including streets, sidewalks, and public parks. In non-public forums, which are areas within public property, such as the interior of government office buildings, police stations, courthouses, city halls, etc., government agencies are permitted to impose more restrictive regulations. 

It’s important for your agency to understand to what extent you must accommodate First Amendment auditors and to develop clear protocols for how employees should handle such interactions. Policies and procedures should clearly address which areas of the building auditors should be permitted to photograph and record and which areas are restricted. 

Policies and procedures should also address when law enforcement should be contacted for support. Ongoing monitoring and review mechanisms should be integrated to continuously evaluate and refine the policies to ensure they evolve with changing circumstances and legal precedents. 

Provide Education and Training 

Provide comprehensive education and training for government employees and law enforcement officers on prioritizing security while respecting the rights of First Amendment auditors. The training should provide practical guidance on how to engage with auditors in a professional, non-confrontational manner. 

The training may include de-escalation techniques, communication strategies, and steps to take when auditors are on government premises. Training should also instruct employees on how to respond if the auditor’s behavior becomes harassing or threatening.  

Create Designated Filming Areas 

Identify and establish specific areas where photography and recording are permitted. These areas could include public lobbies or reception areas and should be marked clearly and designed to ensure safety and minimal disruption to government operations. By offering designated filming zones, government agencies can balance security concerns with auditors' rights.

Identify and Lock Restricted Spaces

Restricted areas typically include secure or classified zones, private offices, and sensitive equipment rooms, where access can compromise security or disrupt government operations. It’s important to provide clear signage to identify these restricted spaces and ensure they are locked and only accessible by keys or access cards. 

This allows government agencies to protect their critical functions while ensuring auditors can exercise their rights within the bounds of security and the law.

Implement Security Measures 

Physical security measures, such as CCTV cameras, duress alarms, key card access, magnetometers, and bag scanners, can improve security in government buildings and aid employees dealing with a First Amendment auditor interaction. 

Stationing security guards at the building entrance to greet visitors and make auditors aware of the building’s security protocols can act as a bridge between auditors and government officials. Security guards can provide clear information on designated filming areas or restrictions, helping auditors understand the boundaries while respecting their rights.

By implementing these security steps, government agencies can balance security and protect First Amendment rights while minimizing the potential for confrontations and misunderstandings with auditors.

A Broader Look

Addressing the presence of First Amendment auditors while safeguarding building security is a complex challenge that government agencies face in today's information-driven world. It's essential for agencies to strike a balance between upholding the auditors' constitutional rights and protecting sensitive information and government operations. 

By developing clear policies, educating personnel, identifying filming areas and restricted zones, and implementing security measures, agencies can navigate these interactions with professionalism and respect. 

First Amendment auditors are a relatively new phenomenon linked to the rise in social media and growing political and social discord. Whether this trend has staying power remains to be seen. 

However, much of the guidance discussed in this article can be applied to a wide range of interactions that government officials have with the public. Although the motivations and intentions of members of the public may shift over time, preparing government employees and buildings for potentially challenging encounters with the public will promote a safe and secure environment while ensuring that the public’s rights are respectfully accommodated.    

Tags: Workplace Security

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Trish Lomonosov

Trish Lomonosov

Trish is a senior analyst/planning consultant for Fentress. She holds an M.S. in criminal justice and is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). She is also a certified Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) practitioner. Her personal interests include hiking, kayaking, and spending time with her two daughters.