CT towns brace for 1st Amendment auditors post Ridgefield arrest

2022-12-12 21:06:15 By : Mr. Wen Dan

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Employee Patricia Pacheco was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after swatting a folder at YouTuber Josh Abrams, who was filming inside Ridgefield Town Hall as part of what he calls a ‘First Amendment audit,’ on Dec. 2, 2022. Double Loop Wire

CT towns brace for 1st Amendment auditors post Ridgefield arrest

Employee Patricia Pacheco was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after swatting a folder at YouTuber Josh Abrams, who was filming inside Ridgefield Town Hall as part of what he calls a ‘First Amendment audit.’

RIDGEFIELD — After a Ridgefield Town Hall employee was arrested after allegedly swatting a file folder at a YouTuber who was filming her has prompted some area towns to take action to prevent similar situations. 

Ridgefield is erecting partitions in some town offices, implementing a buzzer system for visitors to parts of Town Hall and locking many offices in the building that were previously kept open. 

Other towns, however, are focusing on educating their municipal staff on what to do if someone visits their office with a camera. The aim appears to be to support First Amendment rights, while ensuring that interactions between the community and municipal staff remain respectful. 

“Basically, people are allowed to come into public places and video it, but they can’t harass us,” said Rich Straiton, acting first selectman in Bethel, who convened a seminar with a police lieutenant for his employees after the Dec. 1 arrest of Patricia Pacheco, a longtime Ridgefield Town Hall employee. 

Pacheco, 57, was charged with disorderly conduct after she got upset that YouTuber Josh Abrams was filming her and swatted a folder at him.

Abrams, who is from Massachusetts, considers himself a First Amendment "auditor" — part of a growing trend of activists who visit public places across the country to see whether officials abide by freedom of the press and Constitutional rights. His interactions with public officials are then uploaded to his YouTube channel, Accountability for All. 

Pacheco — who could not be reached for comment — is scheduled to be arraigned Dec. 16. She was placed on administrative leave after the incident, First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. She has worked for the town for 30 years, he said. 

It's not unusual for First Amendment audits to lead to arrests or legal liability — for both the auditor and those who were audited. For example, a YouTuber who audited Danbury City Hall last year still faces trespassing and public disturbance charges stemming from his arrest there. The same YouTuber sued the city over his interactions with Danbury police officers during a June 2021 incident at the local library, but that suit was dismissed. 

Often the videos with the most controversy garner the most views — and more revenue for the auditors. The man who filmed at Danbury's library and City Hall last year told the New York Post that he earned $8,000 in his first month as an auditor. 

Abrams conducted a First Amendment audit inside Ridgefield's municipal building on Main Street, where he and another man wandered around, talking to people and asking questions while recording with cellphone video cameras.

Their interactions with people at Ridgefield Town Hall were “very positive” overall, Abrams said. But when they got to the third floor and started recording Pacheco as she sat in her office, she asked them to stop and got upset when they refused, according to the video Abrams uploaded to YouTube. 

The video shows her telling the YouTubers to “get the [expletive] out” and swatting a file folder in the direction of the camera. Abrams said the folder hit him, and Ridgefield police arrested her on the misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge. Abrams had said he wouldn't press charges if Pacheco apologized, but she declined, according to the video. 

Abrams said his goal isn’t to upset or demean people, but to educate them on the rights they have as Americans.

“I don’t think the Founding Fathers foresaw, when they talked about freedom of the press, that someone would have the ability to pull out a cellphone and just start filming,” he told Hearst Connecticut Media, noting that his mission is to “provide education and, for all intents and purposes, allow the public to understand their rights in regards to free press.”

In doing these kinds of audits across the country, Abrams said he has found that many people don’t know what they are legally allowed to do in public places.

Abrams' YouTube channel has 101,000 subscribers, and his video from Ridgefield reached 116,000 views in its first week. His most popular video from October 2019 has nearly 813,000 views and shows his encounter with cops and officials at the Malden Department of Transitional Assistance in Massachusetts. 

Danbury is familiar with First Amendment auditors. The city and its police department were in the headlines last year because of the way Danbury police officers reacted to a YouTuber who refused to stop filming in the Danbury Public Library. After an internal investigation, four Danbury police officers who responded were reprimanded for violating various department policies.

The public may film common areas and hallways, Danbury's attorney has said, but they cannot record over the counter or in work areas, where residents’ private information could be. 

In Danbury, municipal employees are taught early on how to handle situations such as the recent one in Ridgefield, according to John Kleinhans, city spokesman.

“We do training through onboarding and periodic sensitivity training with all of our city employees,” he said.

During the recent seminar in Bethel, Police Lt. Bob Durkin gave “a run-down of the issues” and provided information for department heads to relay to those in their departments, said Straiton, acting first selectman in Bethel. Visitors may come to Town Hall, but they must stay in public areas, he said.

“A lot of our offices have counters so they have to stay behind the counters, and they can’t go into someone’s private office,” he said.

Even if they don’t want to be on camera, Straiton said Bethel’s town employees are told to be courteous to everyone, and it’s up to them if they want to answer questions from a YouTuber.

Brookfield First Selectwoman Tara Carr said the town's human resources director sent a note two months ago reminding town employees how to handle situations such as the one that occurred in Ridgefield last week.

“The message reminded us to maintain our composure, remain calm and professional and to not be confrontational,” she said.

After Ridgefield's incident, Carr said she plans to remind Brookfield town employees about this again, even though she is already confident in their professionalism.

“I don’t have any concerns about any of our employees treating anyone who comes to town hall uncivilly or anything,” she said.

Ridgefield's Marconi has described the YouTubers' behavior as "disruptive" and said it was an example of a "misuse of our First Amendment." 

"Everyone talks about the First Amendment. So do I. I love it. It's great. That's what makes America, America. People want to come here because of that. But it's not there to allow people to use it to harass, intimidate, and profiteer from," the first selectman said Thursday.  

Experts said the additional security measures Ridgefield is implementing in its municipal buildings would not violate the First Amendment. 

Abrams said his interaction with Pacheco was similar to one he had at the Town Hall in Putnam, but the response from town leadership was different.

“Marconi had an employee act unprofessionally and he doubled down and he stands behind her,” he said. “In Putnam, Mayor ​​Barney Seney educated his employees while we were present … and then he hired an attorney to come in, review the video with the employees and provide further training.”

Abrams said he does not plan to return to Ridgefield Town Hall in the near future given Marconi’s response.

“We go in, give an unbiased opinion and recognize what works and what doesn’t work. If there’s something wrong the first time, we sometimes go back to see if changes have been instilled,” said Abrams, who doesn’t see the point in doing that at Ridgefield Town Hall.

Abrams said he believes taking corrective steps after an incident like the one at Ridgefield Town Hall is more important than the incident itself.

“I don’t think it’s so much about the fumble — I think it’s much about the recovery,” he said. “We can’t change what someone did, but we can at least try to educate them and redirect the public’s perception.”

Sandra Diamond Fox contributed to this story. 

CT towns brace for 1st Amendment auditors post Ridgefield arrest

15m Chain Link Mesh Fencing Kendra Baker is a reporter for the News-Times who previously worked as a general assignment reporter for The Wilton Bulletin. Before The Bulletin, Kendra freelanced for The Redding Pilot and interned for the New Haven Independent. She graduated from Southern Connecticut State University in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in psychology. Her work has also been published on ConnecticutHistory.org.