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Video Activism: If You Ignore Them, They Will Leave

What is “video activism” and how do we respond when confronted with a “video activist”? That is a question that a lot of government employees are starting to ask. This question is becoming more frequent due to the sharp increase in video activists showing up at government buildings across the greater Houston region. These “activists” arrive armed with digital cameras with the purpose of recording government employees in performance of their duties.

They claim they are making a video for “educational purposes,” but it is obvious in many instances that their true intent is to bait a government official or employee into making some threat, mistake, etc. on camera that they can then exploit in an attempt to paint the government in a bad light.

Video activism is defined as a way to communicate through the use of video recording for the purpose of influencing public opinion. This form of protest traces its roots back to the 1960s, but due to rapid advancements in technology video activism has become more prevalent in the modern age. Now, due to the evolution of smartphone technology, virtually every person with a phone in their pocket has the potential to be a video activist. In many situations, this can be a good thing as we want transparency in our government, but there are people out there who are abusing the freedoms provided by our First Amendment to their own benefit.

Many government employees and officials find it very frustrating when confronted by a video activist. Since this is a rapidly increasing issue for our local, state, and federal governments, many of these employees and officials don’t know the proper procedure when placed in such an uncomfortable situation.

Video activism, also known as First Amendment Audits, is a form of speech that protected by the First Amendment. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit stated in Western Watersheds Project v Michael, “The First Amendment protects actual photos, videos, and recordings, and for this protection to have meaning the Amendment must also protect the act of creating that material.” Western Watersheds Project v. Michael, 869 F.3d 1189, 1196.

Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press are pillars of our free form of government. As noted by the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit in the case of Turner v Driver:

“Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting ‘the free discussion of governmental affairs.’ Moreover, as the Supreme Court has noted, ‘freedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because it is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.”…Ensuring the public’s right to gather information about their officials not only aids in the uncovering of abuses, but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally.” Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78, 82-83

However, there are those out there that take advantage of such freedoms. The ultimate question most government employees and officials have is, “What do I do when confronted with a video activist while performing my duties?” The answer is quite simple, smile and go about your work as usual. The best way to handle this situation is to not feed the fire they are there to create.

For the most part, these activists are there to elicit some type of negative response that they can get on camera then post on YouTube. However, if you simply respond in a neutral tone they will most likely lose interest and leave. If enough government employees and officials begin responding in a civil, neutral manner, we might see a decline in video activism. This would most likely result in more quality activists who are trying to ensure the government remains transparent instead of baiting hard-working individuals into embarrassing themselves on video. The best example on how to handle such a situation can be found in the following video showing how the government employees and officials at the Rosenberg, Texas, City Hall handled one of these video activists:

If you are a government official or employee, you will most likely be faced with this situation at some point in your career. Knowing how to respond will help you avoid being the subject of an embarrassing video, or, God forbid, a costly lawsuit.

Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our municipal law practice can be found here.

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