Back the Blue

In a society of clicks and likes with cameras everywhere, it was only a matter of time before mainstream drama came to town.  On Sept. 7, a small group of outsiders began filming randomly around the Howell County courthouse. This caught the attention of Toni Chritton Johnson, a local who was overseeing some construction work in the Opera House that she owns. Toni, a former KY3 news reporter, walked over to see why they were recording. She was confronted by an individual who was armed with his cell phone filming one entrance. On May 31 of this year, Judge Steven Privette posted an administrative order that prohibits any audio or video recording in the courthouse and of persons entering or exiting.  "I was very surprised and confused. I couldn't imagine that it could be legal to post this notice. I also can't imagine a judge would do something that violated the Constitution," said Toni. She went on to say, "I thought maybe there was a juvenile court in process. Apparently there had been earlier that morning, but I do agree with the protesters that it was a violation of the first amendment".  
The protesters are known as First Amendment auditors, a large social movement that travels from town to town filming in public spaces, frequently focusing on government buildings. These “citizen journalists” like to test constitutional rights, mainly the right to photograph and video record in public places. They can be confrontational, refusing to identify themselves or explain their activities. Some have been known to get assertive, yell insults, and are disrespectful, even forcing themselves into buildings at times.
On this day, the crowd was small and calm, until a few Sheriff’s Deputies came out to greet them. Toni who was still standing among them. They were asked to leave and stop recording, but this only fueled the conflict and the end goal of the auditors had been set. 
While filming in public is legal, I can see how these activities can cause people to feel alarmed, and to feel their own rights are neglected. In this case, a notice on the door by the judge brought the activists to West Plains.
There are many videos by these groups online, but this one on this day clearly shows the Howell County deputies fulfilling their duty. When Judge Privette summoned all the bystanders inside to his courtroom, Toni went willingly. One woman refused, and two men were handcuffed for reasons unknown. Eventually, they all went before the judge only to be told that they were making the courthouse visitors uncomfortable and if they did it again, they would be arrested. 
I am all for fighting for our rights, but there has to be a right way of going about it.  As the old saying goes ‘you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”
If you are in a public space you have no legal expectation of privacy, but these groups are making a living out of provoking public officials. Why is this legal?  I understand that the more likes they get on the videos, the more money they pocket taking pay-per-view to a new low, not to mention the traps some set for lawsuits. Right or wrong, this kind of money-making venture should have some limits. You have to ask yourself, how did the auditors know of the administrative order?  Were they tipped off by a local? I'd like to think West Plains is still a small, friendly town where we look out for each other.
As for me, I'll continue to back the blue, respect the laws and fight for what I believe in. We the people know right from wrong. Let's go back to that.  
Sue Neitzel is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in West Plains with her husband, a dog, and her chickens.
Publisher’s note: “First Amendment auditing” is not a new practice in Howell County. There are various YouTube channels that feature locals auditing (harassing) law enforcement. There was even one that was called, for a time, “Howell County Internet News.” However, the YouTube channel responsible for this video has over 400,000 followers and does not appear to be produced by anyone local. Followers of the channel that posted this video flooded my email inbox, website forms, and Facebook posts with links and comments. No one with a Howell County address contacted me about it.
The order in question is no longer in effect. Howell County Sherriff Brent Campbell issued a press release last month announcing his policies for courtroom security around the same time I started receiving a deluge of “tips” about this incident. 
The St. Louis Post Dispatch covered this story. Howell County News did not cover it because I do not condone this style of “gotcha journalism.” I do, however, think there is value in a local perspective on what happened. 
-A. Mendez
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