Uptick in First Amendment Audits

Public libraries in the Northeast report recent rise of encounters

August 26, 2021

Man in plaid shirt, back to camera, films library patron with a cellphone
Photo: illustration by Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries, ©puhimec/Adobe Stock (person with camera), ©photok/Adobe Stock (person in library)

Ryan*, a librarian working in New England, was confused when she received an email from library administration about a man who had been banned from the building. When she asked a colleague what had happened, she learned there had been a “First Amendment audit.”

“My heart sank,” Ryan says. She had learned about these encounters in 2020 and knew what they entailed. In First Amendment audits, individuals arm themselves with video cameras, proclaim themselves “auditors,” and enter public buildings, like police precincts and libraries, to record alleged violations. “I know what these people do, so when I heard it was a First Amendment audit, I thought, ‘Oh, no.’”

Libraries have been experiencing First Amendment audits for several years, but there has been an uptick in reported cases during the first eight months of 2021, according to the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF). And while these audits take the same format as before, libraries report more aggressive, targeted, and organized operations than in years past.

“We have seen a greater number [of First Amendment audits] this year, and there could be many reasons for it,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of OIF. There is now a clearer method for First Amendment auditors to profit from their videos, either through monetizing YouTube channels or utilizing crowdfunding tools, like Patreon and GoFundMe. Caldwell-Stone also notes the potential impact of pandemic-induced shutdowns. “We’re living in a time where there is a little more contention over politics, and some of it may be coming from that,” she says. “But there may also be a relationship to the fact that libraries are open again.”

Caldwell-Stone notes that OIF collects and analyzes data on an annual basis, which will be available at the end of the year. In the meantime, a few things are clear: Anecdotally, there has been an increasing number of reports “coming in from the Northeast in particular,” she says, and reports are up compared with 2020. What’s still uncertain is how 2021 numbers compare with those before the COVID-19 pandemic, when more libraries were open. And as these cases see a reemergence, library staffers are split on whether they feel prepared, either for the audits themselves or their aftermath.

Getting prepared

In October 2019, OIF published a blog post that several library directors have used to better understand their legal grounds for interacting with auditors. Caldwell-Stone advises that staff refrain from intervening unless an auditor is violating behavior policies or harassing people in the library, whether staff members or patrons. She also encourages library workers to revisit their behavior policies, social media policies, and any rules concerning photography.

Stacy Wittmann, director of the Eisenhower Public Library District (EPLD) in Harwood Heights, Illinois, took this advice when she heard some libraries were experiencing First Amendment audits. Wittmann met with department heads to collaborate on a strategy to prepare staff.

“The public-facing departments did go over all our policies with their staff,” she says. “As long as people aren’t violating our behavior policy, they have the right to photograph and record within the library.” Though EPLD has not experienced an audit, Wittmann says she feels reasonably ready for an encounter.

Jennifer Brown, executive director of The Field Library (TFL) in Peekskill, New York, used OIF’s blog post to prepare herself and her staff after receiving a note from her town’s police department to plan for a potential audit. The caution came after an encounter at a nearby library resulted in a viral video.

When the so-called auditor arrived 10 days later, Brown says she felt ready. “We knew what to expect, what this guy would try to do, what the policies from ALA are, and what our own policies were,” she says. The auditor stayed in the building for only six minutes. “He didn’t get a rise out of anybody, so he was kind of deflated and left. It doesn’t make for an interesting video if nobody stops you or tries to argue with you over your right to video.”

Brown notes that, in preparation for the audit, some library staff took off their name tags to help preserve personal privacy. She also says staff would have protested the man’s filming had he attempted to record minors or patrons using computers.

She credits her local police department with her ability to ready herself and her team for the encounter: “My advice is to already have that established relationship with the police department and make sure everybody is on the same page.”

The question of police intervention

Police presence in libraries remains a difficult topic, especially when staff and patron safety may be at risk. Not all libraries can rely on local police to help them prepare for First Amendment audits. “I don’t think working with police is a scalable way of addressing this issue,” says Alison Macrina, director of the Library Freedom Project. “In fact, I could see very easily how they could make those situations worse.”

For Ryan in New England, police involvement escalated tension during her library’s audit, she says. The police were called shortly after the auditor’s arrival at the building. A now-viral video shows a heated exchange between police and the man, who has threatened to file a lawsuit against both the library and the local police department. As of press time, no lawsuit had been filed, but Ryan remains upset by the police response.

“Having watched the video and seen how the police engaged with him, it’s really frustrating. I feel like they made it worse,” she says. “The way that they came in, itching for a fight, is everything that this guy wanted.”

While staffers are not featured in the viral video, the library has been the target of harassment through Facebook, Google reviews, and phone calls. Hostile messages have been posted on their children’s storytime videos as well, she says. Additionally, every time the so-called auditor updates his YouTube channel, the calls and comments begin again.

“What we’re all so exhausted by is the fact that this is not going to go away. The internet is forever, and any time this guy decides to post an update, it’s going to refresh the vitriol,” she says. “It’s just so annoying that we’re going to have to be dealing with this in some fashion for ages.”

A murky path forward

A First Amendment audit’s severity and virality appear to hinge on the response to the auditor, whether by library staff or police. But it can be difficult to predict just how aggressive an auditor can be, as well as when they may arrive. Macrina says that library workers should use their own networks to prepare for encounters.

“We have our mailing lists, our Facebook groups, we have all kinds of ways that we talk to fellow library workers,” she says. “What we’re missing is the plan of action.”

Caldwell-Stone says her office has helped individual libraries talk through the process as they develop a policy or make improvements to an existing one. Still, she notes that it might be useful for the Intellectual Freedom Committee to adapt the OIF’s blog post into a set of guidelines for workers to use.

And while some library workers believe this trend will fade if auditors don’t get the viral responses they seek, others are less hopeful. “I feel very cynical about it,” says Macrina. “I think we, as library workers, really need to prepare ourselves.”

*Name changed at source request


Photo: Man holding a video camera in the library

Free Speech—or Free-for-All?

“First Amendment audits” push privacy limits

Illustration: David Michael Moore

Target: Librarians

What happens when our work leads to harassment—or worse