Today, the Local Government Insurance Trust (LGIT) issued a Risk Management Bulletin entitled, “First Amendment Audits – What You Need to Know,” covering a specific, often hostile free speech-related scenario county workers encounter.
More specifically, LGIT discusses county responses to “auditors” or members of the public who photograph, film, or audio record public employees in public buildings. The Bulletin provides a realistic First Amendment audit scenario public employees might encounter:
A clerk for a Maryland municipality is busily preparing council meeting minutes when an unexpected and confrontational visitor enters town hall. The person gives no reason for the visit and refuses to even provide his or her name, but starts questioning the employee demanding answers: “What is your name? What is your job here? What’s in that room over there?” During this encounter, the person is also recording the employee and the facility with a mobile phone and begins to walk down the hallway into the private office areas.
LGIT notes that the right of auditors to record is subject to some restrictions:
The First Amendment is not absolute. There are instances where government can limit access to public spaces and as a result speech. The Supreme Court has recognized that there are certain places, known as “forums,” in which the government can limit speech. The key factor here is the definition of a public forum vs. non-public forum. The strictest First Amendment protected areas are “traditional public forums” such as streets, sidewalks, parks, and town squares, where governments may impose very limited speech regulations. Other areas within public property are known as “nonpublic forums,” such as military bases, police and fire stations, public schools, courthouse/city hall lobbies and hallways, and the interior of government office buildings. In those locations, governments may impose significantly more restrictive regulations.
To ensure these First Amendment audits do not hinder or reflect poorly on county operations, LGIT advises several different strategies- most notably, encouraging public employees to become knowledgeable on the subject matter and respond appropriately.
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