By DANIEL SUTPHIN
PUNTA GORDA — Should the public be allowed to record inside government building offices?
The question remains when it comes to ongoing legal issues between Punta Gorda and Copwatch reporter Andrew Sheets, a self-proclaimed government watchdog, who was trespassed from city hall in December 2018.
The city made a request Aug. 26 for a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Sheets in July through Middle District Court of Florida where he claims the trespass order violated his First Amendment rights.
In his lawsuit, Sheets cited that the city violated his 14th Amendment right, which prevents governments from depriving a person’s liberty or property interest without the due process of law.
“The (city’s) response (to my lawsuit) is stupid,” Sheets told the Sun. “It has nothing about (the fact I was) going in and making a record request that day and recording while doing it.”
“(Sheets) is suing the city over a trespass warning he received for violating a city ordinance restricting video and audio recording in city hall,” wrote attorney Nikki C. Day, representing the city, in the motion. “Certain city properties, including city hall, are a limited public forum with regulations designed to allow for the efficient rendering of public services while also maintaining a safe and orderly environment.”
Sheets was served with a trespass warning by city staff in December 2018, when he said he was trying to make a records request for an ordinance that restricts the recording of public officials in public places.
During the interaction, city staff members refused consent to be recorded by Sheets and asked him to turn off his body camera.
There are also signs posted on the walls in the offices at city hall stating recording is restricted.
“He was asked to stop because he was filming in an employee’s personal work space,” Punta Gorda Communications Manager Melissa Reichert told the Sun in January.
The city council adopted an ordinance in May 2017, stating that city staff may “lawfully designate the degree of public access within city-owned, control and leased property, according to the purpose and use of areas within such property.”
As part of the ordinance, it’s noted that city staff seeks to maintain a safe and orderly environment. It also states that they want to discourage and prevent behavior that interferes with the designated use of the property.
“That city hall is a historic landmark,” Sheets said. “People like to take pictures, take video at historic landmarks. (But they claim that) unless you have business, you can’t be there.”
In the motion, it’s noted that the city hall buildings are available to those who are there for “legitimate public business” with authorized city officers and employees.
Recording access is allowed, however, if it is a public forum such as a city council or committee meeting or similar forums.
In the city’s motion, Day concluded Sheets did not have required authority to be in the area he was in and “thus, does not present a constitutionally-protected liberty at issue.”
The city didn’t respond to the Sun’s request for comment on its motion to dismiss.