First Amendment audits

First Amendment audits are a largely American social movement that usually involves photographing or filming from a public space. It is often categorized by its practitioners, known as auditors, as activism and citizen journalism that tests constitutional rights;[1] in particular the right to photograph and video record in a public space.[2][3] Auditors believe that the movement promotes transparency and open government.[4] However, critics argue that audits are often confrontational in nature, as auditors often refuse to self-identify or explain their activities.[5][6] Some auditors have also been known to enter public buildings asserting that they have a legal right to openly carry firearms, leading to accusations that auditors are engaged in intimidation, terrorism, and the sovereign citizen movement.[7][8][9]

Thumbnail of a First Amendment audit video on YouTube

Auditors tend to film or photograph government buildings, equipment, access control points and sensitive areas, as well as recording law enforcement or military personnel present.[10] Auditors have been detained, arrested, assaulted, had camera equipment confiscated, weapons aimed at them, had their homes raided by a SWAT team, and been shot for video recording in a public place.[11][12][13][14][15][16] Such events have prompted police officials to release information on the proper methods of handling such an activity.[17][18] For example, a document sponsored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police states that the use of a recording device alone is not grounds for arrest, unless other laws are violated.[19]

The practice is predominantly an American concept, but it has also been seen in other countries including the United Kingdom,[20][21] Canada, and India.[citation needed]


Auditors typically travel to a place that is considered public property, such as a sidewalk or public right-of-way, or a place open to the public, such as a post office or government building, and visibly and openly photograph and record buildings and persons in their view.[22]

In the case of sidewalk or easement audits, the conflict arises when a property owner or manager states, in substance, that photography of their property is not allowed. Sometimes, auditors will tell property owners upon questioning that they are photographing or recording for a story, they are photographing or recording for their "personal use", or sometimes auditors do not answer questions.[23][24] Frequently, local law enforcement is called and the auditor is sometimes reported as a suspicious person and are often also identified as having been on private property. Some officers will approach the auditors and request his or her identification and an explanation of their conduct. Almost universally, auditors will invoke the 4th Amendment with the belief that they are not required to identify themselves unless witnessed having just committed a crime. They quote the relevant law to the officer as the basis for their refusal to identify.[6][25] This sometimes results in officers arresting auditors for failing to identify themselves, obstruction of justice, disorderly conduct, or any potential or perceived crime that could potentially be justified by the occasion.[26][27]


The legality of recording in public was first clearly established in the United States following the case of Glik v. Cunniffe,[28] which confirmed that restricting a person's right to film in public would violate their First and Fourth amendment rights. As the 7th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals explained in ACLU v. Alvarez, "[t]he act of making an audio or audiovisual recording is necessarily included within the First Amendment’s guarantee of speech and press rights as a corollary of the right to disseminate the resulting recording. The right to publish or broadcast an audio or audiovisual recording would be insecure, or largely ineffective, if the antecedent act of making the recording is wholly unprotected."[29][30] However, the legality of the auditors' actions beyond mere filming are frequently subject to debate. As long as the auditor remains in a public place where they are legally allowed to be, they have the right to record anything in plain view, subject to very limited time, place, and manner restrictions.[31][32]

Some auditors occasionally yell insults, derogatory language, and vulgarities at police officers who attempt to stop them from recording or improperly demand identification.[10] Police will sometimes charge auditors with disorderly conduct when they engage in behavior that could be considered unlawful. For example, an auditor in San Antonio was prosecuted and convicted of disorderly conduct after an audit.[33] After the trial, the Chief of Police for the City of San Antonio stated "[the verdict] puts a dagger in the heart of their First Amendment excuse for insulting police officers..."[34] Despite the San Antonio Police Chief's statement, insulting the police is consistently treated as constitutionally protected speech.[35][36][37] In State of Washington v. Marc D. Montgomery, a 15-year-old successfully won an appeal overturning his convictions for disorderly conduct and possession of marijuana on the grounds of free speech. Montgomery was arrested after shouting obscenities, such as "fucking pigs, fucking pig ass hole" at two police officers passing in their patrol car. Citing Cohen v. California, the Court ruled that Montgomery's words could not be classified as fighting words, and restricting speech based merely on its offensiveness would result in a "substantial risk of suppressing ideas in the process."[38]

The rights exercised in a typical audit are freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the First Amendment, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures in the Fourth Amendment, and the right to remain silent in the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Auditors attempt to exercise their First Amendment right to photograph and record in public while avoiding committing any crime. The reason for this stems from the Supreme Court's decision in Terry v. Ohio which held that it was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment to detain someone when the officer has reasonable articulable suspicion that crime is "afoot". Further, following the Supreme Court's decision in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, the Court held that in States that have stop and identify statutes, a person may be required to provide their name to an officer who has reasonable articulable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.

The conflict with law enforcement officers generally arises because officers sometimes deem photography, in and of itself, "suspicious behavior" and use that as a reason to detain an Auditor and demand identification. Universally, Courts that have reviewed this specific issue have held that the fact that a person takes a photograph or makes an audio or video recording in a public place or in a place he or she has the right to be, does not constitute, in and of itself, a reasonable suspicion to detain the person, probable cause to arrest the person, or a sufficient justification to demand identification. Some states have even revised their penal code to reflect that issue.[39] Nonetheless, officers frequently detain or arrest auditors for "suspicious behavior".[40][41]

One of the main problems that auditors face in subsequent lawsuits are the Supreme Court's decisions in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, and Anderson v. Creighton, which held that government officials, including officers, would be shielded from liability and damages as long as their conduct does not violate "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights".[42] Therefore, while a Fourth Amendment seizure claim might exist for an auditor who stood on a public sidewalk and took pictures of a police station only to be handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car, a First Amendment claim would be dismissed because although a violation occurred, it was not "clearly established".[43] Qualified immunity allows "all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law" to escape liability for egregious and obvious violations of civil rights.[44] So far the 1st, 3rd,[45] 5th, 7th,[46] 9th,[47] and 11th[48] Circuits have held that recording the police in the course of their official duties is a clearly established right.



Auditing can be controversial due to the confrontational tactics of some auditors, which some may see as intimidation or harassment.[49] In addition, many public employees are not familiar with handling people walking around silently recording their interactions. While the conduct is generally legal, such activity may cause some people to feel alarmed. Some auditors cite independent research into relevant laws, pointing out that they are currently being recorded by cameras in the building, or by stating that there is no expectation of privacy in public.


Audits are even more confrontational when aggressive auditors engage in verbal disputes with government employees. Some auditors may use profane language during an audit. Some may confuse obscenity for profanity, and while the latter is generally protected by the first amendment, the right to engage in a verbal dispute depends highly on the circumstances. While on public streets, parks, or sidewalks, the right to free speech is at its highest, as one is within a traditional public forum. However, in limited public forums, such as public buildings, meeting rooms, and other public lobbies, the right to free speech may be more limited.


One auditor stated that the goal of an audit is to "put yourself in places where you know chances are the cops are going to be called. Are they going to uphold the constitution, uphold the law ... or break the law?"[50] Auditors state that they seek to educate the public that photography is not a crime, while publicizing cases where officers illegally stop what is perceived as illegal conduct.[51][52]

An auditor selects a public facility and then films the entire encounter with staff and customers alike. If no confrontation or attempt to stop the filming occurs, then the facility passes the audit;[53] if an employee attempts to stop a filming event, it fails the audit.[54]

Some auditors are concerned that if officers are willing to harass, detain, and arrest auditors, who intentionally avoid doing anything that might be considered a crime, normal citizens might shy away from recording officers for fear of retaliation.[55][56] In 2017, Justice Jacques Wiener of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit wrote a federal appeals decision in favor of an auditor who was detained for filming police officers; “Filming the police contributes to the public’s ability to hold the police accountable, ensure that police officers are not abusing their power, and make informed decisions about police policy.”[6]


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