Deep Dive

Controversial “First Amendment Auditors” Test the Right to Film in Public Spaces


Filmed interactions with police that make headlines or spread on social media is not a new phenomenon. But a growing movement of self-described “First Amendment Auditors”—individuals who specifically film on public property and police stations to test the rights to film in a public space—has forced some police departments to review how to respond to First Amendment audits. The audits, often posted to YouTube, have become a form of activism: individuals stake out a public facility and record the location and any interactions with staff and the public. An uneventful audit is akin to “passing a test,” while a confrontational audit, usually an attempt by an employee to interfere with the filming, gets a failing grade. Many audits are non-violent and uneventful. But some encounters have escalated dramatically, resulting in arrest and litigation.

For a teaching guide on the rights and limitations of recording audio and video of police, click on the box below.

FAW Teaching Guide

Newsworthy First Amendment Audits

The “Arizona Auditor”

A YouTuber, who goes by the alias “Arizona Auditor” and has more than 8,6000 subscribers, was charged with criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, and harassment after filming inside and outside of a local post office.

The Goodyear Arizona Police Department noted in a news release following the incident that it was not a crime to film, but claimed that the “auditor” and another individual trespassed a non-public area marked “No Entry,” and refused to leave. The two individuals also allegedly followed a woman to her car, prompting calls to 911.

“The Goodyear Police Department respects the First Amendment rights of citizens to film and be present in public places,” the department wrote in the statement. “When that right is pushed beyond legal limits, puts the safety of others at risk, and a crime is committed, then, under the law, police must enforce any laws that are being violated.”

AZ Central

Auditor Shot While Filming

A YouTube personality and First Amendment auditor in California claimed that she initially began filming an area synagogue while admiring its architecture, unaware that it housed a school. A security guard confronted her, and when she refused to leave, she says that her recording then became an audit. After a standoff, the security guard shot her in the leg.

Washington Post

City of Colorado Springs Settles With Videographer for $41K

A Colorado Springs, Colorado auditor photographed and filmed marked police cars in parking lot at a police substation. The police officers thought he was acting suspiciously and asked for identification, which he declined to provide. The officers detained him and took away his camera and cell phone. The auditor filed a complaint agains the officers for wrongful detainment, which the city eventually settled for $41,000.

The Gazette

Green Bay Police Disciplined For Reacting To Audit

Three Green Bay, Wisconsin police officers were disciplined as a result of their response to an auditor that filmed inside and outside of police headquarters. The auditor was filming from the sidewalk, but was then tackled to the ground by a detective. He was detained for 20 minutes before being released without being charged. The detective that tackled the auditor was suspended one day without pay, another received a written reprimand, and the third received a verbal warning. A fourth officer, however, was commended for attempting to diffuse tension.

Green Bay Press Gazette

Facilities and Agencies Respond

The International Association of Chiefs of Police published a comprehensive Instructor’s Guide on Public Recording of Police Activities. The objective of the training is to teach participants about the constitutional rights and limitations of the public and media to record police activity, why law enforcement might perceive video and audio recording as unwarranted or threatening, how officers should respond, and when and how recording devices can be seized.

PROP Instructor’s Guide

Securitas Critical Infrastructure Services Inc. (SCIS), one of the largest providers of specialized security services in the United States, offers a set of best practices for security officers to use when confronting First Amendment audits.

SCIS:Preparing For First Amendment Audits

Public libraries in Wisconsin have anticipated audits, and its website has instructions for library staff on basic First Amendment issues and how to respond to an auditor.

Wisconsin Division for Libraries & Technology

Analysis & Opinion

A “Cutthroat” Industry

Auditors have recognized the financial payoff from dramatic encounters and heated altercations with the police. The Daily Beast interviewed a number of auditors about the business side of auditing, reporting that some auditors take aggressive positions when encountering police with the expectation that getting arrested will boost their views and profile. The Association of Labor Relations Officers warns its members that auditors often look “to have a poor contact with law enforcement” in order to create a viral incident.

The Daily Beast

Are Audits Dangerous?

Auditors maintain that their intent is to merely film public places and police officers undisturbed, but their critics say that they often act to provoke a negative response, and that their tactics are intimidating. There’s legitimate concern that some of these encounters could spiral into violent situations.

The Blaze KWCH

The Best Response Might Be Not to Respond

The Houston Chronicle reports that with some exceptions, First Amendment lawyers and some police groups support the auditors’ right to film police as long as it’s not interfering with their work.

Bill Aleshire, an attorney and former Texas County judge told the Houston Chronicle:

“[Auditors] are most valuable when they document and show the lawless, authoritarian behavior of some police officers. They are most divisive and least valuable when they, themselves, become nothing more than reality TV producers. When immature, hateful auditors attempt to create a scene for their reality TV notion, I wish cops would learn to laugh at them, and, while remembering their oath of office, avoid handcuffs, Mace, fists and clubs until these creeps have really threatened public safety.”

Houston Chronicle