City beefs up security after YouTuber strikes

Surveillance camera footage shows a self-proclaimed First Amendment Auditor at the recording during a March 9 encounter at the Waynesboro City Hall.

Surveillance camera footage shows a self-proclaimed First Amendment Auditor at the recording during a March 9 encounter at the Waynesboro City Hall.

A YouTuber has Burke County officials seeking legal advice and training.

A March 14 email sent from County Manager Merv Waldrop asks several recipients at Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG) how city and county workers might receive training on how to deal with public information requests made during recorded episodes that are then posted on YouTube.

“Do you have any legal advice as we expect more visits from these folks?” Waldrop asked in the email. “Are you aware of any training for local government team members that might be available?”

City Manager Valerie Kirkland told the City Council Monday that employees became concerned when a First Amendment auditor’s video focused on a drop box where residents make payments and submit identifying information.

The City has taken steps to provide tinted plexiglas for employees working behind the counter.

“That was a red flag for us,” Kirkland said. “Working close to the counter, they could be working with sensitive information.”

In a phone interview Wednesday, March 16 with The True Citizen, the auditor identified himself as Ben Newsome. Growing up in Richmond County, he was traumatized by an incident with a deputy sheriff, which later inspired him to start the YouTube channel, Georgia Constitution Media, and begin his work as a “First

Amendment Auditor.”

Newsome began his You- Tube project in March, 2021, but often travels with a network of friends who have their own similar channels. His first endeavor, at the Richmond County Judicial Center, resulted in a marshal grabbing him under the arm and throwing him out the door like a “stray dog,” he said.

Newsome visits public offices throughout Georgia and South Carolina, most often based on citizen referrals. The number of people who subscribe to his channel has grown to nearly 10,000 over the last year.

The March 9 YouTube video, featuring a visit to the Waynesboro City Hall, has had more than 28,000 views. During the approximate 30-minute video, Newsome is seen videotaping employees while they work and making a public records request for 2-weeks of video footage taken from cameras mounted on the City Hall’s walls. Waynesboro Police Department deputies show up, including Chief Willie Burley.

Newsome said he educated himself on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by watching other audit videos and by reading case law. He carries a copy of Smith vs. Cumming, the 2000 case decided by the United States Court of Appeals, after a couple filed suit against the City of Cumming, Georgia and its police chief. The couple alleged the police department harassed the husband and prevented him from videotaping police actions in violation of his First Amendment rights.

“As to the First Amendment claim under Section 1983, we agree with the Smiths that they had a First Amendment right, subject to reasonable time, manner and place restrictions, to photograph or videotape police conduct,” the court wrote as part of their decision. “The First Amendment protects the right to gather information about what public officials do on public property, and specifi- cally, a right to record matters of public interest.”

Newsome insists he doesn’t try to provoke the government employees he meets. He doesn’t curse or make obscene gestures.

However, Kirkland said since the video was posted on YouTube the city has been receiving harassing calls originating from various states.

“That’s how bullying starts,” Kirkland said. “We have received phone calls with people calling us idiots and stupid. The lady they are talking about is the sweetest lady I know.”

A comment where the video is posted reads, “They are the reason we need to overthrow the government and kill every government employee.”

“This is a lesson learned,” Kirkland said. “It has shown us that we have security issues that we need to look into.”

Newsome has already visited Burke County at least four times. In addition to the City Hall video, a Feb. 18 video posted on YouTube features him questioning an off-duty Burke County Sheriff’s Deputy who parked in a fire lane while he shopped for flowers in Richmond County. He also visited the Burke County Judicial Center, May 26, 2021, in regard to a worn-out American flag. He visited the Burke County Sheriff’s Office June 3, 2021, asking for an officer complaint form and finding fault with a picture of a flag hanging in the lobby.

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