Shhh! Libraries hope to avoid a video closeup
Oregon's public libraries are trying to avoid a harsh video spotlight.
Librarians across the state are spreading the word about the possiblity that First Amendment "auditors," who take videos inside public buildings, could show up at local libraries. Most of the auditors' videos are posted on YouTube and social media sites by people identified as "citizen journalists" and Constitutional activists. They're usually based on random contacts with public officials. Auditors often highlight confrontations with law enforcement.
Sherwood's Public Library staff reported meeting with a First Amendment auditor in late January. Library Manager Adrienne Doman Calkins told Oregon's Intellectual Freedom Clearinghouse that on Jan. 21, a man who said he was a First Amendment auditor spent about 30 minutes in the library, asking questions about city policies, including restrictions on filming or taking photos in the building.
Calkins said the man (who she did not identify) "was enthusiastic about his questions and courteous." The man didn't live in Sherwood, but told Calkins he had occasionally used the library. The discussion was friendly, she said, and the man wasn't confrontational. "This had a different tone from what I've seen on YouTube," Calkins said.
She told other city officials about the meeting, and tried to follow up with the man by phone and email. He instead took his video camera to Tigard's Public Library, where he filmed.
Tigard Library Director Halsted Bernard said via email that the man was cordial and "spoke positively about the library in general." He made an appointment in January. When he showed up, the man filmed the library's technology room while asking Bernard about the facility. "In our conversation, he did not mention the word audit," she said.
Library staff took the meeting in stride. "The staff provided him with the same excellent customer service that we provide to everyone who visits our library," Bernard said.
Lisa Tattersall, manager of the Washington County Cooperative Library Services in Hillsboro, expected the same from any of the county's 16 public libraries if "auditors" show up. "Public libraries are open to all, and we work to meet the information needs of everyone in our communities," she said via email.
A 'limited' public forum
First Amendment auditors have been around for years. They use smartphones or video cameras to film in all types of public facilities. Portland-area "cop watchers" have filmed police in action for more than a decade. Other activists have posted similar videos on websites like NewsMaven and YouTube sites like Black Coat Media and The Battousai.
Citizen journalists landed in the national spotlight nearly a decade ago when several people filming police on public streets were taken into custody or chased away. A prominent case involved former traditional media reporter Carlos Miller of Miami, a local blogger, who was arrested for filming the forced eviction of Dade County Occupy protesters. The issue spawned the Photography is Not a Crime movement, which spread through social media.
Sometimes citizen journalist interactions go awry. In March 2018, Springfield police arrested a 31-year-old Eugene man after he filmed people in a handful of public buildings, like school administration offices, a Post Office and Springfield City Hall. The Eugene Register-Guard reported that Daniel Palmer was charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing.
Word of Palmer's arrest spread online. Hundreds of people across the country jammed Springfield Police Department phone lines demanding Palmer's release.
In June 2018, Colorado Springs, Colorado, paid a $41,000 settlement to a man who was arrested in November 2017 while filming unmarked police cars in a public place. During a confrontation, police took the man's video camera and smartphone.
In Los Angeles' Fairfax District, YouTube personality Zhoie Perez, known as "Furry Potato," was shot in the leg during a mid-February 2019 incident outside a synagogue. Perez was filming the synagogue when a security guard confronted her and his gun went off. The 44-year-old guard was arrested. He was at the gate of the synagogue's all-girl high school.
Oregon librarians think auditors could target local public libraries. They're concerned a possible confrontation could have a chilling effect on library patrons who value their privacy. They're also concerned a confrontation could shine a negative light on public libraries.
"Most of the serious concerns I've heard are about the possibility of chilling individuals' use of the library," said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom in Chicago. "If these auditors go in and try to document what people are reading, or what they're looking at on the internet, it would be very concerning."
Caldwell-Stone has studied the issue and has helped libraries deal with all sorts of behavior and social challenges. Librarians have reported First Amendment audit confrontations in Arizona, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and South Carolina. "Like many phenomena, it grows through social media," she said.
Legally, public libraries are considered a "limited public forum," Caldwell-Stone said. Staff can enforce behavior rules, and require that people receive permission before photographing inside their buildings to avoid interfering with staff or patrons.
"I'm not saying they don't have a First Amendment right to be there," Caldwell-Stone said. "I am saying libraries have a right as a limited public forum to make sure the library is available for what it was intended, access to information for everyone."
'Nothing to worry about'
Black Coat Media's Felipe Hemming said libraries might be making too big a fuss about the audits. "There is nothing to worry about," Hemming said via email. "These folks are looking for interactions, contact, conflict or bad behavior from anyone, including public employees."
Hemming, who is part of a Los Angeles-area law firm operated by his wife, suggested that library staff greet potential First Amendment auditors "as they would any other library patron, ask if they need assistance, a tour or a copy of the decorum policy for the facility." If problems arise, he recommended that library staff call law enforcement if necessary, "just don't make a show of it. Do not give them the content they crave."
Caldwell-Stone encouraged librarians to enforce behavior policies to discourage confrontations. Most libraries have policies on working with traditional media, she said, but those should be updated "to prevent interference and harassment."
"I don't think it's wrong to say that librarians and library workers have to deal with many issues these days," Caldwell-Stone said. "I can point to a number of libraries who have hired social workers. I think that having a plan in place and knowing how to implement those policies can equip staff to deal with this when it happens."
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