They make money videotaping officials. Why and how some CT leaders want to stop them

RIDGEFIELD — Public officials are considering ways to react legislatively to a growing group of people who consider themselves First Amendment rights activists and make money by creating YouTube videos of themselves walking into Town Halls and other public offices unannounced and taping them.

While the YouTubers say they are defending the Constitutional rights of all and performing a service that helps the community, many officials and employees say the activists' actions disrupt their workplaces. In local incidents, police have been called and sometimes officials or the YouTubers get arrested or into other legal trouble. And now, state and town leaders are considering legislative action. 

In the meantime, experts are weighing in on how these activists test their First Amendment rights and are advising town employees on how to react when faced with an individual who is videotaping their every move. 

"I just can't march in on my schedule and expect everybody to stop what they're doing and grab a file and sit down and talk to me," said Neil Marcus, an attorney with Cohen & Wolf in Danbury, who serves as counsel for Ridgefield and other municipalities,. "There's no purpose in denying people their First Amendment rights with respect to the operation of government, but you can't operate a government without having some rules and regulations." 

Marcus noted this is a new phenomenon. 

"Of all of my municipal and legal experience, I've never heard of this happening until very recently," he said. "This is an evolving area of law. We're just beginning to see the issue and look into how to come up with a response that respects the rights under the First Amendment ... Yet at the same time, the need to allow an orderly function of the government."

State Rep. Pat Callahan, R-New Fairfield, said the state is looking into legislation that would prohibit the recent behavior towns have been seeing, while still protecting their rights.

"If someone is going into public offices and creating a disturbance so they can put it online and then get YouTube ads and hits off of it and using it to generate income for themselves, then that can be a reason to be able to stop them," Callahan said. 

He added getting a bill adopted may happen in this legislative session and could become law by Oct. 1 or Jan. 1, 2024. 

YouTuber visits

The YouTubers perform what they call "audits" of their access to public buildings by recording video of their visits, often on just a smartphone, and posting their videos on social media, where they earn money based on the ad revenue on their videos.

Some of the YouTubers are acquainted with one another and "support" each other, said Josh Abrams, whose visit to Ridgefield Town Hall in December led one town employee to be charged with disorderly conduct. Charges against her were later dropped. 

That visit sparked two later incidents with YouTubers at Ridgefield Town Hall, with another cameraman visiting Mallory Town Hall in Sherman. Police were called in the Sherman incident and in the most recent Ridgefield incident in early January when YouTubers temporarily taped a sign at Town Hall that referred to municipal employees as “animals." 

Additionally, a YouTuber who audited Danbury City Hall in 2021 still faces trespassing and public disturbance charges stemming from his arrest there. The same YouTuber sued the city over his interactions with Danbury police officers during a June 2021 incident at the local library, but that suit was dismissed.

A YouTuber who calls himself "David Miranda" from Good Guy Audits, who visited Mallory Town Hall on Dec. 27, told Hearst Connecticut Media he plans to return to Sherman.

"The reason why I would return is for accountability, transparency and to normalize the First Amendment — to make sure that the people's rights are respected in the buildings that we pay for," said "Miranda," who declined to give his real name or say where he lives. "The Town Hall is a people's building, so I can return as much as I want."

Citizens have the right to record government officials in the course of their daily duties, he said. "Their job is to serve the public." 

Standing before town employees unannounced, regardless of what they happen to be working on, is not a disruption, he said.

"How can it be a disruption if I am their job?" he said. "If they were on the phone or handling paperwork and they see a member of the public standing there waiting to be serviced ... They've got to know how to do multiple things at the same time."

Remembering rights

The purpose of developing legislation would not be to preclude First Amendment rights Marcus said. Rather, it would be to allow the transaction of ordinary business of the town without unreasonable interruptions, he said.

"There are two things that are being confused here. One is your First Amendment rights, which I believe in 100 percent and I don't know any Town Hall or municipal or government agency that's going to try to deny people legitimate exercise of a First Amendment right. Period," Marcus said.

"The other is, can you operate any entity, be it public or private, without having certain rules and regulations as to disruption? Whether the disruption is for legitimate purpose or not, the question is, 'Can you constantly operate in an open office, open to anybody?' It's just a question of common sense, right?" 

Videotaping is common in town buildings, he said, pointing to the many meetings that are recorded and livestreamed for the public. But the videographers at those meetings are not disruptive to the operation of the meeting. Marcus said.
 
"It's not that the YouTubers shouldn't be able to have access to the government," he said. "It's the how they do it."

There are certain places and certain circumstances where YouTubers don't have the right to make videos, according to Marcus.

"YouTubers can't videotape in the courthouse, where there is no place in the country, including here in the state of Connecticut, where the First Amendment is more sacred," he said. Similarly, in the Department of Motor Vehicles, they would not be granted permission to go behind the counter and video the clerk transacting business, Marcus said.

It's not respectful for YouTubers, or anyone, to show up unannounced and expect to be instantly serviced, he said. It's "common courtesy" to make an appointment, and town and state employees must be able to concentrate on their work, Marcus said.

"How are we ever going to get people to work in municipal buildings if by coming to work in the morning, they expect that at a moment's whim, there'll be five or 10 people in their office, making videotapes?" he said. 

Training for employees

Ridgefield Police Capt. Jeff Raines called the YouTubers "out of control" and said town employees should be trained on how to react to their visits.

"What we internally recommend is more training and making everybody aware of the First Amendment everywhere, in any public place, even in the lobby of the police department, the post office, the town halls," Raines said. "Staff has to be aware and not to react in a certain way to these people because that's what they're looking for."

The YouTubers are pushing employees to the limit, he said.

"They try to push people over their limit to get a reaction out of them and then that's what they use" in the videos on their YouTube channel, Raines said.

He advises against having a negative reaction to the YouTubers. "You either talk to them, you ignore them, you do whatever, you go on your way," Raines said. "They're just looking to get somebody to snap."

Like Raines, Kevin Maloney, director of communications and member relations with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said the CCM is providing guidance to municipalities to help them "respond responsibly" to YouTubers' requests for information.

At the same time, the CCM is ensuring they protect the interests of towns and town employees "in trying to get the normal course of business done," he said. 

Maloney suggests that YouTubers set up appointments to speak with town officials to get what they need.

"The town officials can (then) prepare themselves and do the appropriate back research that's going to be more useful to a good, thoughtful response," Maloney said.