If you want to make a video of Charlotte County employees while on county property, it better be outside the building and without harassment or interference.
The county has quietly added video restrictions to its facility rules in documents that can be found on the county website. That new paragraph states that the person who is videotaping anyone on county property must stop if asked to do so. If they fail to do so, the county will issue a a trespass complaint against the person.
One first amendment expert said based on existing federal case law, the restrictions could be found constitutional, if challenged. But under certain circumstances, it might not stand up, said Frank LoMonte a lawyer and director of The Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.
“The federal courts have not recognized a generalized right to shoot photos or video anywhere and everywhere that a person might like,” LoMonte said.
Filming of police officers in public outdoor areas has become an exception, he added.
LoMonte said the county could have relied on state laws that already help protect people from harassment or trespass.
“The more it looks like you’re restricting people’s expression as opposed to their behavior, the more you’re opening yourself up to be sued,” he said.
Also, ‘Just say no,’ may not be the answer.
“Even a request to stop isn’t enough, because people say that to journalists,” LoMonte said. “You don’t want journalists going to jail, because somebody hollered out, ‘No pictures.’ That’s not enough.”
The county’s new rule is similar to one enacted by the city of Punta Gorda in 2017, except the city issued its by ordinance.
A few local residents have been challenging the Punta Gorda ordinance, and have now turned their ire on the county for its new rule.
“This is obstruction and a violation of the people’s right to document what public employees and officials do on public property,” local resident David Kesselring said in an email addressed to “Commissioner.”
Another activist, Andrew Sheets, showed up with a video camera in April at the county’s old courthouse — now an office building that houses The Supervisor of Elections among others — in Punta Gorda. In the video, Sheets managed to get a trespass warning, but no citation.
The confrontation staged by Sheets is notable for pleasant behavior.
“I am recording you,” Sheets advises secretarial staff.
“We prefer you not record according to the ordinance,” a secretary responds.
“So can you call?” Sheets asks.
“We have no other choice but to call it in,” a staff member responds.
“I’ve already talked to a lawyer. That’s fine. Not a problem,” Sheets says.
LoMonte believes the courts would likely not look fondly on actions staged to provoke a first amendment confrontation.
“I don’t encourage people to go out and aggressively videotape people just to prove a point,” said LoMonte.
Sheets was non-threatening, as were Punta Gorda police.
“How’s it going, Boss,” the officer asks in the video.
“Bad. My rights are being violated,” Sheets answers.
County Attorney Janette Knowlton told the Sun she could not comment on the issue except to say there have been no first amendment complaints filed in court against the county.
Sheets said that Sheets’ Copwatch group has hired a Jacksonville-based lawyer, Andrew Bonderud, who did not return calls from the Sun.
One type of scenario might lead to a successful first amendment complaint, LoMonte said. If videotaper is issued a trespass citation while pursuing real information of interest to the public, outside the county building without harassment or impedance.
That might stand up in court, LoMonte said.