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First Amendment auditors provide opportunity for targeted police training
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First Amendment auditors provide opportunity for targeted police training

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Among Americans’ most cherished freedoms are those guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

We fully support the First Amendment. In fact, we live by it; it enables us to publish the newspaper every day.

We cannot say the same for self-styled First Amendment auditors.

Anyone who has spent time on the internet has likely encountered video clips posted by people who will enter government buildings or place themselves in situations where they’re likely to be confronted when they begin recording with video equipment or a camera phone. They’re usually polite but firm in the face of authority, refusing to identify themselves and invoking their right to operate a camera in whatever situation they’ve placed themselves. They’ve done their homework and are, more often than not, on firm legal ground.

However, the stunts aren’t really about the First Amendment. The goal, at least, is to record a confrontation that may make a video clip go viral on the internet. At best, law enforcement will get involved and the perpetrators will be detained or arrested. The auditors may then file a federal lawsuit against the local government and/or the officers involved with the hope of being offered a monetary settlement, as appears to be the impetus behind a federal suit against two Dothan police officers who encountered a self-styled auditor in a local government building.

Law enforcement officers have enough on their plates without worrying about being goaded into detaining someone whose primary goal is to sue for a questionable arrest. That makes for a good training opportunity for police agencies, which should provide rank-and-file officers with specific instruction in dealing with so-called First Amendment auditors and others simply looking for a “gotcha” payday.

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