Orange to offer training following visits from ‘First Amendment auditors’

Wheeler Memorial Library in Orange.

Wheeler Memorial Library in Orange. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Orange Town Hall.

Orange Town Hall. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 09-11-2023 5:59 PM

ORANGE — Town employees are expected to undergo training in response to visits from two “First Amendment auditors” last month.

A pair of YouTubers stopped by the Wheeler Memorial Library on Aug. 23 and recorded a video inside to post online. They were confronted by a staffer, who told them videography was not allowed, and later spoke at length with Library Director Jessica Magelaner before leaving, insisting their rights had been violated. They then went to Town Hall on Aug. 28, filming employees and talking with new Town Administrator Matthew Fortier, who accompanied them to the library to speak with Magelaner and address their concerns.

“First Amendment audits” consist of people exercising their rights to record video in public spaces like town halls, libraries, police stations and parking lots. Though largely peaceful, some “auditors” have been known to use antagonizing or condescending tactics if confronted by people who are made uneasy by the presence of a camera. The venture can be a moneymaker as well, as some “auditors” — like the ones who visited Orange — accept donations via PayPal or other payment systems and sell merchandise featuring their branding.

Fortier addressed the Selectboard at its Sept. 6 meeting to discuss the YouTubers’ visits. He said they recorded town employees at work and posted videos online.

“We’ve definitely learned a few lessons out of these incidents,” he said.

Fortier explained there will be a Sept. 27 interdepartmental meeting regarding First Amendment rights and social media management. He also said he will put together a formalized training with attendance logs and sign-in sheets to confirm municipal employees have participated.

The Selectboard voted on Sept. 6 to accept a new protected class harassment prevention policy drafted after the August visits, as well as a new sexual harassment prevention policy. Fortier said the policies were reviewed by Town Counsel Donna MacNicol. He said more work is needed on the municipality’s social media policy.

Magelaner, who has been the library director since January 2016, said library staffers will undergo the First Amendment training “so that everyone’s on the same page.” The YouTubers’ visits were also discussed during Monday’s library trustees meeting at the Moore-Leland Library.

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The “auditors” who visited Wheeler Memorial Library on Aug. 23 first encountered a staffer outside the children’s room in the basement and were told photographs are permitted, but video recording is not. They followed the staffer upstairs and spoke with Magelaner, who told them they had the right to record video, but requested they be respectful and not make people uncomfortable or record any sensitive information on computer screens. The YouTubers demanded an apology — which they did not receive — from the staffer and pushed for her to be fired.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association earlier this year created a webinar to provide public employees with an overview of First Amendment audits and how to prepare for one. The webinar can be found at bit.ly/3sLxl93.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.