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'Remain calm & pleasant.' How state is asking employees to handle so-called '1st Amendment Auditors'

Michigan Capitol Building
Posted at 5:36 PM, Nov 22, 2021

(WXYZ) — They call themselves First Amendment Auditors and Citizen Journalists. They are on social media, they are in your face, and more people are doing it. Now, 50,000 state employees have been instructed how to respond.

It is rare for these people to come out from behind their cameras and talk about what they do. But now, a popular social media star is opening up.

Freedom News Now has been posting videos for several years. The person behind it is Justin McDermott.

“There's never been a better time than now to do your first First Amendment audit,” he said.

One of his videos from 2017 shows him outside of the Warren Tank Plant, a federal contractor. He’s wearing a full-face mask refusing to answer questions from police about who he is, why he’s there and if he has any weapons.

“I mean, officers are killed the line of duty trying to do exactly what those other officers were doing,” says Warren Police Commissioner Bill Dwyer.

“Oftentimes there are legitimate questions and I'm okay with questions from officers. My auditing style has changed throughout the years," he said.

Dwyer continued, “There’s absolutely no doubt he was trying to provoke the officers.”

On the Warren tank plant video McDermott shouts out about the police, “they’re grabbing me. Am I being detained?”

Dwyer says the plan can be to get even more things like filing a lawsuit, getting a settlement from the city and possibly getting the officer fired.

The trend prompted the state of Michigan to email 50,000 state employees and tell them how to, "Uphold the general rights of the public while remaining vigilant for suspicious behavior. The encounters often include behavior that is designed to provoke a reaction that could be viewed as a violation of first amendment rights. "

When asked McDermott if some behavior is deliberately provocative, he abruptly only answered, “next question.”

The email continues, "The most important thing to do is remain calm and pleasant."

In another video outside of a state prison in Adrian, McDermott records videos with two cameras when he is approached first by prison officials. He says to them and the viewers of his video, “They abuse inmates every day. Most abuse their wives.”

McDermott says the key to his First Amendment audits is, “there’s nothing to hide then there should be nothing to fear.”

At the end of his videos when the police walk away, he draws conclusions often calling them First Amendment fails. He says, “There goes the walk of shame, guys.”

According to McDermott, there is entertainment value in the YouTube channels.

A couple of weeks ago, three other First Amendment Auditors were confronted by the Saginaw County Undersheriff. He says he wanted to get a video of their faces, and in the video, he pushed a camera stick off to the side.

This was their second visit to that department. Their first video was in the lobby shooting videos through windows. The Undersheriff says several younger women employees are inside.

“They felt uncomfortable, extremely uncomfortable because they wanted to know, why is this guy recording me and what are they going to do with the recordings of me?” Undersheriff Mike Gomez said.

After this incident, the men filed a complaint with Michigan State Police. The Undersheriff says that made a record of who they are.

"I said yeah, 'I’m good with that. Go ahead and do your investigation. I went out there so that if something were to happen to one of my employees, I can say, these three gentlemen were here,'" he said.

We told the Undersheriff about our questions and lack of answers from McDermott

“They believe it only works one way, right? If they are truly the media, aren’t they subject to the same rules that apply to you?” Gomez responded.

McDermott says his videos are posted for people to comment and discuss. He also sells merchandise and seeks subscribers. He wants to grow his audience. It is all his First Amendment right.

Below you'll find the full email to state employees

"There has been a recent increase in the presence of individuals filming and photographing on state property. It is important that, as a public employee, you have the information to uphold the general rights of the public while remaining vigilant for suspicious behavior. 

Among other possible individuals and groups, there is an ongoing nationally coordinated effort by groups who sometimes refer to themselves as “First Amendment Auditors” to video record interactions with public employees on public property, often posting the videos on social media. These individuals are private citizens. 

The encounters often include behavior that is designed to provoke a reaction that could be viewed as a violation of first amendment rights. Some examples of behavior that have been observed at Michigan public buildings include video recording in and around public buildings with no obvious purpose, video recording employees coming and going, video recording employees through exterior windows, and being intentionally rude or uncooperative when questioned. In a few instances the individuals have also been openly carrying firearms. These activities, although abnormal and suspicious, are legal. With very few exceptions, the right to create video recordings of public employees or private citizens on public property is considered a form of free speech and is protected by the first amendment. 

If you are engaged by an individual or group, the most important thing to do is remain calm and pleasant. As soon as you determine that the individual is not present for business purposes, respectfully disengage with them. Typically, if they are unable to get a reaction, they will move on. 

As always, if you encounter or observe someone engaging in illegal activity, or behaving suspiciously even if the activity is legal, you should report it. Security and law enforcement personnel are trained to deal with these situations. If you see something, say something."