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First Amendment Audit

You may have some people visiting your church and filming your congregants to provoke them. They are called “First Amendment Auditors,” and we have a great way to handle it. 

What is a First Amendment Audit?

First Amendment Auditing is a social movement aimed at upholding the freedom to photograph and record public places and public officials. And now, they’ve been targeting churches. However, for the most part, the movement has been contained to filming on duty police officers in response to the national debate on law enforcement and police brutality. Self-appointed ‘auditors’ view themselves as citizen journalists advocating for more open and transparent government.

Auditors are often provocative, refusing to disclose their reasons for recording and occasionally throwing insults and vulgarities at victims. This behavior, combined with the public’s general lack of familiarity with privacy laws, can generate the kind of viral moments that auditors are seeking. While the legality of recording in public was upheld by Glik v. Cunniffe, the practice is controversial. 

So, you’re saying they come and film people just to get a reaction on video and make money posting it? Yes, exactly. Not nice at all. 

Youtube tends to pay between $0.10 and $0.30 per 10,000 views. With some of these videos reaching more than 50,000 views, it’s not uncommon for an upload to make upwards of $12,000 per video!

Why should our church care?

Yep, you guessed it, they are coming to churches. While First Amendment Auditing began with a focus on government, certain auditors have expanded the practice to places of worship. You can find these videos up by searching “Church First Amendment Audit” on Youtube, we’re not linking to them here because we do not want to provide these channels ad revenue (not a chance!)

What’s worse is that auditors have formed multiple crews in California to scout soft targets that provide vulnerable audiences on a Sunday Morning. Auditors plan their visits in advance, knowing how to create a disturbance.

This is what they do:

  1. They show up to your campus. The auditor(s) will stand outside the church property while filming staff and attendees as they enter and exit the church service.Oftentimes, this involves the auditor shouting vulgarities and insults both at church staff and church members. Auditors may go as far as to photograph vehicles and license plate numbers. One auditor even took pictures of vehicle identification numbers.
  1. They refuse to leave or answer why they came. Eventually, someone from the church will confront the auditor and ask their reason for being there. The auditor will refuse to answer questions, citing their First Amendment right to film and record public spaces.
  1. They provoke you. These encounters can understandably become confrontational, especially if church members get uneasy being filmed without consent. 
  1. Try to get you to fail the audit. Should the church ‘fail’ the audit (meaning they attempt to shut down the auditor or involve law enforcement) the auditor may respond with litigation alleging suppression of free speech.

How should our church handle an audit?

First off, we highly recommend reading this resource from Brotherhood Mutual on handling protestors at your church.

  1. Don’t give them a reaction. They are here for a reason, and they are hoping your church will do something to make the video viral and generate ad revenue. 
  1. Don’t try to shut them down. Despite the provocative nature of these audits, the first amendment does guarantee the right for individuals to record in public spaces. If your church attempts to shut down free speech, you’ll not only be more likely to generate negative press on social media, but you will also expose yourself to potential litigation by the auditor.

We’ve got a hack for you. 

Our Churchwest President, Charlie Cutler, has a particularly effective trick for warding off auditors and we think it is pretty great. If an auditor is harassing your congregation, as soon as they start filming, do this:

1. Set up a speaker. Call your audio-visual team or anybody who has a portable speaker.

2. Play music really loudly. Start playing something that we know is heavily copyrighted. We recommend “Let It Go,” from Frozen (Isn’t it perfect?). 

  1. Get up close to the first amendment auditor and make sure the audio is being picked up by their microphone. (If the auditor uploads a recording with this audio in the background, video platforms may copyright strike the video and remove ad revenue from the channel. If the video is still uploaded, and contains the audio, feel free to flag the video as violating copyright to give the algorithm a little ‘push’.)

It’s in our heads now too. “Let it go, let it go, don’t hold it back anymoooorreeeee.” Such a good one. 

Give your staff and volunteers a head’s up

It’s important that your staff is aware of these incidents and leadership’s expectations when responding to auditors. However, it’s equally important that your volunteers are made aware as well. The nature of these audits creates a situation where any passerby may approach and confront the perpetrator. While you and your staff may be prepared for how to handle an audit, your congregants are probably not as familiar with the trend or best practices. Remember, a fight with a layperson can go just as viral as one with the executive pastor. 

Explain the importance of a calm demeanor and respecting the rights of these auditors. Empathize with them and acknowledge the emotional impact of being recorded without consent. If they want more information, we suggest sending them a link to this article.

Review your insurance coverage with your agent

Even with the best preparation, things can go wrong in the heat of the moment. If an audit results in litigation against your church, make sure you have insurance coverage in place for claims against your security operations. Churchwest offers insurance products built for churches that can protect against this type of risk, along with many other coverages unique to church operations. If this article has helped your ministry, we invite you to like it and share so other churches can benefit. If you have further questions, or if your church needs to insure against your response to First Amendment Audits, please contact us at churchwest.com.