OUR POSITION: Video “auditors” provoke what may be county overreach.

Questionable actors are often at the center of perplexing civil rights or government access questions. We hardly need a First Amendment to protect popular thought and agreeable characters; jerks are another thing.

As detailed in a story by Sun staff writer Betsy Calvert last week, Charlotte County has instituted regulations restricting the ability of citizens to take video on county property. If video-takers don't stop when asked by county employees, they can be cited for trespass.

The regulation is a response to a group of local activists with a Facebook sited called CharlotteCountyFl Copwatch. As one watcher recently put it in a letter to the editor of the Sun, he and others consider themselves “First Amendment auditors” providing what amounts to a public service.

“If we aren't allowed to audit them, who is?” asked Andrew Sheets of Punta Gorda.

“The auditors don't speak unless spoken to and it would be very rare if any of them actually break any legitimate laws. None have ever threatened or legally harassed anyone.”

That may depend on one's definition of “harassed.” Admittedly, we might feel uncomfortable if someone showed up at our office and stood there recording everything we do. But we're a private business. We can regulate access. Does the same hold true for public employees conducting public business in a space that's otherwise open to the public? If we have a right to public access, why not the right to access with cellphone video?

Fair question.

As captured on video, Sheets was given a warning in April when he began video-recording at the Old Charlotte County Office Building in Punta Gorda. The group was also removed from the DeSoto County Tax Collector's Office on Monday.

He was pleasant about the whole thing. Standing in a public space, Sheets was asked by office secretaries in Charlotte County to stop recording. He said no, and told them, “That's fine. Not a problem.” He had previously contacted a lawyer. He had a point to prove.

Sheets is a polite provocateur. His behavior may have been considered annoying, but was it actual harassment? It's creepy to have someone standing in the corner recording your actions. Note also these “First Amendment auditors” previously had run-ins with the city of Punta Gorda, which enacted a similar no-tape provision two years ago. Sheets has since turned his attention to the county.

We do find Copwatch's world-view to be wacky—they like to run photos of Sheriff Bill Prummell with a Hitler-style mustache, for instance. They do seem to conspiracy and skulduggery everywhere.

Still, the response does seem overkill. The question is, at least, worthy of more extensive debate. As Calvert noted, new county rules were instituted without fanfare.

Do the new rules mean everyone is prevented from documenting encounters in public spaces in public buildings? Or on the sidewalks outside public buildings? With police or county employees in public settings? If not video, then how about audio recording?

Uh-oh, slippery slope.

As one legal expert suggested to Calvert, there is a fuzzy line in these matters. It's messy. We don't like the idea of public employees—office staff, no less—feeling as if they're being held virtually hostage by provocateurs with a cellphone. It's creepy.

But why just ignore it and get on with your routine? It seems most likely that, if government employees simply went about their business, the self-styled "auditors" would get bored and go away. They might get a real life, instead of spending God-knows-how-long recording the hum-drum of government office operation.

From what we've seen up-close, it's pretty mundane. Hardly the "ah-ha!" stuff of compelling, muckraking video.

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