ANCRAM—A visitor named David, last name not given, went to Ancram Town Hall on St. Patrick’s Day to exercise his First Amendment freedoms on behalf of “the people.”
The town clerk and the town assessor were polite and helpful to him. The town highway superintendent and the town supervisor—not so much.
It was just after 11 a.m., a drizzly day as David entered the Town Hall. He had his cell phone out and was recording himself speaking while shooting a video of his surroundings. As he approached the building looking for the way inside, he announced that he was here in “Ancram, Connecticut.” His mission was to “promote transparency and accountability and see if they respect our rights here.”
He went inside, recording and talking as he went.
He had a courteous interaction with Town Assessor Rene DeLeeuw, who answered David’s questions and supplied his business card. Town Clerk Monica Cleveland was likewise pleasant, calm and soft-spoken—just like the visitor. She helped him file a FOIL request for the Town Budget, which he looked over in a looseleaf binder while he was in the office. He provided only an email address for response to the request: .
After his visit with the Town Clerk, David walked up and down the corridors looking through the glass-paned doors of locked rooms and inspecting items hung on the walls.
Things were going along smoothly until David stopped by the town supervisor’s office, where Supervisor Art Bassin was having a conversation with Highway Superintendent Jim Miller.
Mr. Bassin asked the visitor, “Who are you?” He also wanted to know what he was doing—why he was there.
David explained that he was doing a story on Town Hall and that the owners of the building, the people of Ancram, had sent him. Mr. Bassin provided his business card to David and information about Town Hall. He answered David’s questions about the supervisor’s job, his responsibilities and when regular Town Board meetings were held.
But when David started heading back down the hall to toward the clerk’s office, Mr. Bassin told him he did not want him wandering around the building “casing the joint…”
“For what? Paper clips?” David responded.
Mr. Bassin asked David to leave several times, but David insisted he had not yet finished “conducting his business.”
“I would like you to leave,” said Mr. Bassin.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” said David, who did not comply.
There was continued back and forth about who owned the building and if the supervisor was denying David access to public services. The conversation seemed to escalate with Mr. Bassin insisting that David leave or he would call the police.
“It’s okay, you can call them but you will be wasting resources,” said David.
Mr. Bassin picked up the phone and called the Sheriff’s Office telling the person on the other end of the line that there was a person in Town Hall who was “being a little bit weird” and “could you send someone to escort him out?”
David then told the supervisor he was being judgmental and questioned whether “being weird” was a crime?
The supervisor told David to “stop the bullshit” and that he was trespassing.
David told him he was “engaged in a constitutionally protected activity which is qualified as business.”
The dispute dragged on with Mr. Bassin saying he would escort David around he building and take pictures of him taking pictures.
In the video David begins to examine all the pamphlets on the wall when he finds one about anger management and quips, “This is what this gentleman needs.”
The video may be watched in its entirety at www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGIDX7XG-nw.
It ends with Supervisor Bassin apologizing and David saying “Happy St. Patrick’s Day and God bless.”
No one from the Sheriff’s Office appears on the video.
What the First Amendment is about, according to Cornell Law School (www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment), is the guarantee of “freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. It forbids Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual’s religious practices. It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely. It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.”
‘I think we probably failed the audit because we made it clear we were not happy with this person loitering around the building taking videos …..’
Supervisor Art Bassin
Town of Ancram, NY
Supervisor Bassin did some research on his experience and sent out a townwide email about it. He discovered that “First Amendment audits are a largely American social movement that usually involves photographing or filming from a public space. It is often categorized by its practitioners, known as auditors, as activism and citizen journalism that tests constitutional rights; in particular the right to photograph and video record in a public space. Auditors believe that the movement promotes transparency and open government. However, critics argue that audits are often confrontational in nature, as auditors often refuse to self-identify or explain their activities. Some auditors have also been known to enter public buildings asserting that they have a legal right to openly carry firearms, leading to accusations that auditors are engaged in intimidation, terrorism, and the sovereign citizen movement.”
Michael Richardson of Chatham, a social activist and publisher of the Twin County-based Hate Watch Report, told The Columbia Paper this week that based on his findings the movement is not an “extremist cause” and is in fact legitimately engaged in protecting First Amendment rights.
In investigating who is behind the organization, Mr. Richardson checked out the website First Amendment Watch (https://firstamendmentwatch.org) and discovered that among others, the group is sponsored by the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA), New York University (NYU) and the Charles Koch Foundation, which also sponsors National Public Radio (NPR).
In his notes about the audit via email, Mr. Bassin wrote, “I think we probably failed the audit because we made it clear we were not happy with this person loitering around the building taking videos with his cell phone…we asked him to leave multiple times… and he finally did after he videoed all of us in Town Hall, all the offices and all the materials hanging on the walls…”
Town Clerk Monica Cleveland told The Columbia Paper by phone this week that she was aware of this audit process through the County Clerk’s Association, though she was not aware they were doing audits in Columbia County.
She said the visit was somewhat “unnerving and unsettling.” Yet she maintained her composure and polite attitude throughout.
In his email, Mr. Bassin provided links and advised other town employees who may encounter a First Amendment auditor to “stay calm and don’t overreact… do not raise your voice, get confrontational or threaten to call the police… because those things do not work to persuade a First Amendment auditor to leave, and are the kind of behaviors that these First Amendment auditors are looking to provoke.”
In retrospect, Mr. Bassin said by phone, “Next time I’ll offer him a cup of coffee.”