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Professor Roy Gutterman Comments on "First Amendment Auditors" for Syracuse.com

Posted on Thursday 2/13/2020
Roy Gutterman

Local librarians warned to watch for activists looking to score on YouTube

(Syracuse.com | Feb. 7, 2020) A group of “First Amendment auditors” has reached out to at least one local library threatening to come test the library’s free speech policies and evaluate whether they will protect citizens’ rights to film in public.

The auditors are a loose group of YouTube activists who enter public places like libraries, post offices or police precincts and film employees and patrons. They often post videos of confrontations with employees online with sensational titles like “LIBRARY STAFF GETS OWNED ON CAMERA!!! 1st amendment audit FAIL" ...

... Roy Gutterman runs the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University’s Newhouse school. He said the auditors are entering a “gray area” of legality when trying to film in libraries. It’s legal to record in public places like sidewalks or parks or outside a government building, he said, but there are acceptable limits inside government buildings.

“There are more limited rights for everything from filming to yelling,” he said. “You can’t yell in a library. You can’t be disruptive. I’m just not sure the purpose of recording for the sake of recording.”

Moreover, Gutterman said the auditors’ actions didn’t really appear to serve much of a public service, like they claim.

“I’m all for keeping government officials accountable, even librarians,” he said. “But I’m not quite sure what the value is of some of this. I understand recording in cases of abuse or corruption or police brutality... even public meetings...where there’s real public discourse. I’d like to see them do stuff like that, go to a city council meeting or school board meeting where there’s an important watchdog function.”

Despite the auditors’ claims, the right to record in public places has not been upheld by the Supreme Court, Gutterman said.

The most notable ruling on recording in public is the case of Glik v. Cunniffe. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled on that case in 2011, determining private citizens have the right to record police carrying out their public duties ...

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