Want a PhD in Psychology?: Be the First to Create an Academic Study of First Amendment Audits
The fastest way to make headway in academia is to offer an original contribution to a particular field of study. I have a proposition for those looking for a way to do so in the field of psychology. Be the first to study an emerging social phenomenon and there’s already a bevy of data to use collected by people known as First Amendment Auditors.
A new way for people to exercise their rights in America has developed primarily over the last decade. With social media and video streaming services, content creation is king, and this has especially been the case the last five years. A number of prominent YouTube channels (among others) have emerged that focus on auditing. So what is a First Amendment Audit you are probably wondering. An audit is a situation wherein a person or persons selects a location (usually after checking local laws regarding photography, filming, and audio recording) and they go there with a camera held in an obvious and non-surreptitious manner. Many will have the camera on a selfie stick or even a tripod. The point of this is so that no one can accuse them of trying to sneak around and make recordings. One would think this would put people at ease, but let me tell you now — it does not.
The audits are typically performed by an individual or a pair who go to publicly accessible areas of public places in order to exercise their right to take photographs and/or videos in public. Such actions are perfectly protected by the First Amendment. Most auditors do not announce their intentions to the area being audited ahead of time because that would likely influence the behavior of the public servants who work there. To announce it ahead of time, to seek approval, acquire prior permission, and so on undermines the purpose of the audit. The purpose is to record how public servants act and react to ordinary citizens as members of the taxpaying public while they engage and interact with one another.
It is my belief that there are a number of advanced academic studies that could be done by analyzing this material whether that be work for a master’s thesis, a PhD dissertation, or even post-grad studies. I have been watching auditing videos for about 3 years and I find them endlessly fascinating laboratories for observing human behavior. The things that people say and do in response to an auditor showing up with a camera is often baffling, perplexing, sometimes hilarious, but more often than not infuriating. Why infuriating? Because so many people do not understand the law, do not care what the law says, and have contempt for auditors because for some reason they think they can boss the auditor around. Keep reading and you will know what I mean.
Although each auditor has their own style and techniques, the perceptions of the public and public servants are much more notable. There are countless examples of the following generalizations (and I will have to use a number of generalizations to get through this article to give an impression of what often happens during audits): an auditor shows up at a Post Office, Sheriff’s Department, Human Services building, etc., and within seconds to minutes a public servant will appear. They often begin by feigning politeness, others not so much, and will ask things like, “How may I help you?” or “Who are you?” or “What are you doing here?”. Many times these questions are shot out rapid fire with obvious increasing anger and frustration that the auditor does not respond to their questions with fear.
If the questioner does not receive what they deem to be an adequate or sufficient response, they almost always begin to escalate the situation by becoming rude, obnoxious, antagonistic, condescending, demanding, threatening, or giving commands and orders. Because they do not understand the law, they begin to try to exercise petty power over the auditor. I have seen this sort of behavior from people in a parking lot or a lobby, from window clerks to Post Masters, and, of course, from police officers who should all know better.
Those being audited will often fly off the handle based upon their subjective whims and emotional responses of those around them. After the introductory phase where the public servant demands to know why the auditor is there or recording or has a camera, they then shift into rhetoric, argumentation, and self-justifications. This often proceeds something like this: Public Servant: “Why are you here?” Auditor: “Oh, I’m just checking out the Post Office.” Public Servant: “Why?” A: “Well, I’ve never been here before and wanted to see it.” PS: “Well, I’m gonna have to ask you to stop recording. You can’t be filming in here.” A: “Really? Why is that?” PS: “It’s not allowed” or “I don’t want to be recorded!” or “There’s information in here that you’re not to record!”
At this point, the auditor now has several options for response. They can simply ignore the public servant altogether, tell them they are wrong, ask for their boss, supervisor, station manager, or Post Master, etc. or direct their attention to Poster 7, which in a Post Office lists the rules and regulations and grants explicit permission to the public to observe, record, photograph both the outside and inside of Post Offices. Unfortunately, more often than not none of these responses work. It is my belief that these responses fail because the individual issuing commands lets their ego and emotions take over. This is often where the escalation gets even worse. PS: “Shut it off!” or “I already told you not to film me!” or “I don’t want to be on your video and you don’t have my permission!” or “Get out!” or “I’m calling the police!” Any or even all of these are often yelled at the auditor at this point regardless of how friendly or calm the auditor has been thus far.
The auditors, who have often been through this many times, then commonly resign themselves to waiting for the police to arrive. The public servant often begins to exhibit a strange sense of superiority or self-satisfaction that they have contacted “the authorities” in a misguided belief that now the cops will come and arrest the auditor or otherwise force them to leave the premises under threat of arrest. It is as if once their anxiety and anger is mildly resolved by turning into an authoritarian tyrant, they then puff themselves up with arrogance and they begin to tell the auditor: “Now you will stop.” or “Now you’ll be giving some answers!” and the like.
In the next phase, “the authorities” arrive. Here, a number of issues come up. Legally, there is always the question as to whether or not the local police even have jurisdiction on Postal grounds. The individual officers rarely even know. The auditor is usually more informed and knows the police either do not have jurisdiction or have an official agreement with the Post Office to be able to operate there. Now that they police are there, virtually identical behavioral processes begin to take place. The officer(s) (generally) will first contact the person at the Post Office who called and get “the story”. Then they will make contact (as in verbally interact, not immediately go “hands on” and grab the auditor which is assault and battery) with the auditor. Officer: “Hi, uh, what are we doing here? What’s going on?” A: “Oh, I was just here checking out the Post Office.” O: “Okay, uh, why? I mean why do you have a camera? Are you working on a project? Who do you work for?” A: “I’m not interested in discussing that?” or “Yes, I’m working on a news story about the Post Office.” O: “Alright, we were called here because some people are upset. They’re uncomfortable with you filming here. It’s kinda suspicious behavior.” A: “How is it suspicious? I’m recording openly so everyone can see, I’m not trying to secret myself, or use a pin spy camera.” O: “We’re gonna have to ask you to stop recording there’s no filming allowed in here. People don’t want to be on camera. They have privacy.”
Now this is a real problem. Here the officer has switched from trying to assess the situation to trying to give directives. Very often, the officer will now make multiple attempts to get the auditor to identify themselves by providing their name, first name at least. The majority of auditors will not provide their name or identification because they are not legally obligated or required to do so depending upon which state they are in and whether the officer claims to be conducting an investigation into a law that has supposedly been broken. They really have to stretch it in order to do that, so most officers do not. Intelligent officers often quickly realize that the denial of ID or name signals that the auditor is aware of the law, whereas most people simply comply. It it has not already happened, this often prompts the auditor to ask for the officer’s name and badge number or other identification number. Many auditors ask for this the instant that an officer arrives on scene.
Typically here one can get a sense of how the interaction will go. Rude officers will point to their name tag, no matter how small it is or how far away they are, and say, “It’s right here!” Smart alleck auditors then usually replay, “Well hello, Officer Right Here.” It’s so common that some auditors have their own name tag made up and placed on their shirt that says, “Right here.” to respond to officers who are acting like jerks to the public. Which is, I hate to say, very common.
Officers with a modicum of professionalism will unhesitatingly identify themselves (which is usually department policy) and provide their badge/id number. Now in the process of branching possibilities, the officer can either find out what the rules and regulations of the Post office on Poster 7 say or they can be obstinate and let their emotions and ego kick in and run amuck. So with option A, the officer is either already aware that it is perfectly legal to record on and in Post Office grounds/read and understand Poster 7 or B, go into authoritarian tyrant bully mode and start issuing directives, commands, and threats.
Note, mind you, that as all of this is taking place, there is often a crowd who will begin making snide comments to the auditor: “Don’t film me!”, “You can’t record me!”, “Why don’t you just get out of here!”, and so forth. Auditors have to have thick skin and be able to remain calm in volatile and emotional situations. Many times under the threat of arrest or that some random crazed member of the public may attack them or threaten to attack them.
Now, allow me if you will, to discuss a number of other aspects that I think are involved in how people respond to what ultimately boils down to a person walking around with a camera. For example, I have watched many videos where a person will demand an auditor stop recording and delete their video. Some even demand an auditor show them a film permit!? Others even scream that they will sue the auditor if their face appears in a video because they have not signed a release form. These types of reactions are completely baffling. My speculation on this is that people watch far too many TV shows and think that because they have seen faces blurred out in TV shows, that is something they get to dictate to others. Again, it is an attempt to exercise petty power. But it is also fascinating and bizarre that these kinds of people are so filled with pomposity and self-importance. I think it bespeaks the entitlement and narcissistic self-absorption of so many people today. They operate under a strange misguided sense that they deserve anonymity while in public. This is underlined by many people who will stop walking past a camera and then begin yelling at a person with a camera and then even walk up right in front of the camera and demand that they not be filmed. This is perplexing since more often than not, the auditor did not even notice the person until they began screaming and approaching the camera. The screamer then makes themselves the center of attention and forces the auditor to film them because who knows what they may do.
Next, I would like to analyze some of the language used by people who oppose the auditors. They often attempt to use elevated language, try to employ legalese (even police do this which auditors often refer to as “copslaining”) that they heard in the news, on TV shows, or in movies. These individuals often approach the auditor to blurt things out like, “You can’t be doing that here.” “Hey, shut that off now!” or “Who gave you permission to do that? Who do you work for?” Then this usually triggers a switch and the person begins saying things like, “This is a government facility.” or “This is a secure location.” or “This is a restricted area because in this day and age you never know what might happen.” or “You are behaving suspiciously.” If the auditor points out all the numerous security cameras that are inevitably surrounding buildings, often numbering into the dozens, the person will often instantly respond, “Well, those are security cameras.” If the auditor then says, “Well, this is for my personal security.” that response literally never works. If the auditor is recording from a public sidewalk or easement and points out that Google has already recorded that area, the mental disconnect is stunning to see. It’s like watching an electronic device short-circuit. The person then usually just switches back to some other justification about why a person with a camera cannot record or take pictures in public.
Next, I will move to some of the more aggressive folks who think they get to order auditors around. Some physically threaten auditors for simply recording, “I’ll knock your teeth down your throat!” and so forth. Others do what has come to be referred to as “Cam Back”. The angry person will take out their phone and begin to record the auditor, oddly thinking this will agitate or bother the auditor who is often overjoyed that someone else has joined them in exercising their right to record. This is often totally lost on the person engaging in CamBack. Others will begin to walk right up into the personal space of the auditor. They try to intimidate the auditor sometimes even going as far as trying to follow them in a car or lurking nearby with unknown intent.
Of Karen’s and Darren’s
What may have started as an anti-white racial pejorative, the term “Karen” has come to be applied to women who strut around trying to boss others around when they have no authority to do so. Initially, a “Karen” signified an entitled, angry, bossy, white woman who goes around lecturing minorities about how they should or should not act. This has expanded to encompass any adult female who runs around giving commands to strangers about what they can or cannot do. The male version of a Karen has come to be referred to as a “Darren”. Darren’s are similarly nosy, poking around in things that are of no concern to them. Older generations may think of the neighbor on “Bewitched” named Gladys Kravitz who was always sneaking around to gather gossip about Samantha. Gladys was extremely nosy, always trying to pry into the business of others, but Karen’s and Darren’s are often far more aggressive. They are more inclined to use rude tones of speech and to issue commands, demands, and threats: “What’s your name — who do you think you are!?” or “Where did you park your car? I’m going to take your license plate information to find out who you are!” or “Is this part of a lawsuit? I’ll break your camera!”
Next, I wish to return to the role of law enforcement officers who all too often seem to think their role is to act as feelings enforcement officers. This category probably frustrates me the most: officers show up, and some seem to think that simply because someone has called the police station and was upset about something, that means they then must try to impose their will upon an auditor. I find it simply stunning how many officers either display no knowledge of local or state laws and, much worse than that, some have no knowledge of and even open contempt for the Constitution and Bill of Rights. There are videos wherein officers say things like, “I don’t care about the law.” or “I don’t care what the law says.” or “I don’t care about the Constitution.” Truly despicable. When public servants and officers of the law treat members of the public this way, is it any surprise that many citizens have contempt for government employees and police?
Beyond this, some officers will attempt to blur the lines regarding what they are doing. They sometimes will imply they are “conducting an investigation” trying to confuse an auditor regarding whether or not they are being detained or are free to go. This is of great legal consequence because if a person is not detained, they can freely speak with an officer or ignore them and continue whatever they were doing. However, if detained, the auditor has to remain in the area and may have to decline to speak under 5th Amendment protections. By blurring this line, some officers attempt to obtain the auditor’s identity under ‘color of law’. An auditor must always have their guard up regardless of who they are speaking with.
Finally, paranoia seems to be running rampant. During Covid, people would become hysterical if an auditor either was not wearing a mask (which is and was allowed due to various conditions which grant a medical exemption and that never has to be disclosed due to HIPAA regulations). But regardless of Covid, people freak out and start babbling nonsense about terrorism, accusing auditors of being “Trump supporters” or “Jan 6ers”, and the like (most auditors, by the way, never speak about politics or mention anything related to who they have supported for president). It is the height of absurd irrationality to lose one’s mind over a person with a camera when we are all photographed and recorded, probably hundreds of times per day, in public. Just think about being on vacation at a beach or in a national park, no one ever questions anyone taking photographs or videos. Yet, in the minds of the paranoid and perpetually outraged, there seems to be some magical transformation that takes place when a camera is in the hand of a person rather than hanging from the roof of a building. I would further like to speculate that some people are just busybodies. They think that because they work at a particular location that gives them some kind of imaginary ownership at their job. Operating on this imaginary ownership, and because they are interacting with a stranger, they get delusions of grandeur which they seem to believe grants them power over others. And they love to exercise petty power. The kind of power that Dostoevsky wrote about regarding low level angry bureaucrats hiding behind windows and desks and policies.