Myrtle Beach officials stand by their actions after a group of YouTube personalities entered City Hall last week claiming their visit was riddled with constitutional violations.
Individuals representing four YouTube channels entered City Hall on Friday claiming they wanted to photograph and record the building by request of their followers. During the encounter, the individuals were stopped and asked to leave, resulting in a near 20-minute confrontation that led several officials to demand they leave the building.
The men refused to identify themselves when asked, explaining they were within their constitutional rights to do what they want on taxpayer property.
The videos were posted to YouTube and had over 100,000 views as of Monday evening.
‘Here’s what happened’
The men, who represent YouTube channels Auditing America, News Now South Carolina, South Carolina Accountability and Carolina Auditor went to City Hall on Friday with cameras, stating in videos they were doing a “first amendment audit” after receiving several complaints from their followers about Horry County.
“Hopefully they do the right thing and respect our right to film in a public area,” Enrique Torres, who runs Auditing America, said in his video as he entered the building.
As the men walked around, they refused to identify themselves when asked, claiming they were within their rights to enter the “people’s building.” They told officials they only wanted to take photos in a “publicly accessible place,” but were instructed they couldn’t roam the building because city business was being conducted.
At one point former Assistant City Manager Bruce Boulineau briefly grabbed one of the cameraman’s stand and moved it out of his face.
The confrontation dynamic shifted and became more hostile.
After the exchange, the men told City Manager John Pedersen they are “independent journalists” who were working on a story about freedom of the press and didn’t want to initially divulge that information in fear of revealing the story they were working on.
Pedersen told the group they were creating a disturbance, called the police and asked them to leave. But the groups’ refusal to leave the building, maintaining their constitutional rights, resulted in a 20-minute standoff between the group and Myrtle Beach police.
While the men said they were exercising their rights to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press, police told the YouTubers that City Hall is city-owned property with the authority to have anyone removed from the building. Police added the men couldn’t enter the building with the intent to disrupt city business.
“We all have a right to be here,” Torres said to police in his video. “This is the people’s building.”
After being threatened with arrest, the group left the building, but stood on the sidewalk screaming to officers that they violated the constitution.
‘All about creating confrontation’
Pedersen said Monday the city is willing to work with the press in every way possible, but maintained the YouTube group came to City Hall to disrupt the office.
“The safety of our employees is obviously a concern of mine,” Pedersen said. “I made a judgment they were looking to disrupt business at City Hall and they were not here for any journalistic purpose. It was an inappropriate attempt to ruin everyone’s day.”
Their approach to conduct business was poorly handled with the men refusing to introduce themselves or explain their intentions when asked, Pedersen said. Myrtle Beach has never denied any journalist the right to work at City Hall, he added, but the groups’ behavior was all about “creating confrontation.”
“I was very pleased with how our police department conducted themselves,” Pedersen said. “City Hall is not here to be disrupted. It’s a government building and it’s a public building, but that doesn’t mean you can use it for whatever you want.”
With the videos garnering over 100,000 views since being posted to YouTube on Saturday, Pedersen said the city received several phone calls on Monday from people making threats against the city. He said callers are claiming they’re media representatives, but added that no one has identified who they are or what organization they work for.
In a voicemail sent to The Sun News, one individual used profanity and advised city officials to get their act together because more people would be coming back to City Hall after Labor Day.
“I just can’t imagine a professional journalist would conduct themselves this way,” Pedersen said.
With threats of the group coming back, officers have also been providing security to City Hall since Saturday’s incident, Pedersen said.
“I really think we have an obligation to do what we need to do to keep the employees who work at City Hall safe,” Pedersen said. “And in my mind, they had crossed the line and they were clearly there to create a confrontation.”
‘I won’t stop’
The founder of News Now South Carolina, who would only identify himself as Dave, told The Sun News he started his YouTube channel last November as a way to hold police departments and governments accountable for their actions and unveil officers who don’t respect the constitution.
The South Carolina resident said he travels the country aiming to teach officers the “basic laws of America” to ensure lives are saved from “egotistical” cops who lack an understanding of a person’s constitutional rights.
“I’ve saved people’s lives,” Dave said. “I don’t take too kindly to people not doing their jobs, especially when I’m there to help bridge the gap and not cause a disturbance.”
While Dave said that he was “disgusted and appalled” with the actions taken by Myrtle Beach officials last week, he added police only considered the group’s actions a disturbance because the they was exercising their rights.
Although, when asked about time, place and manner restrictions, which are limits governments can impose on the First Amendment based on occasion, location and type of individual expression in some circumstance, Dave said it wasn’t worth talking about, explaining the group was well within their rights to be at City Hall.
However, the protections of the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly in the First Amendment are not absolute, according to Taylor Smith, an attorney representing the South Carolina Press Association.
While places like a city park are considered traditional public forums that protect free speech, places where city employees work, such as city hall, are considered limited public forums, Smith said. This means governments can impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions that are not based on the content of the person’s speech but are narrowly tailored to promote a government interest, such as disrupting city employees in the performance of their duties, Smith said.
Additionally, Smith added that Myrtle Beach does have an ordinance that prohibits people from willfully harassing, disrupting or interfering with any public or governmental business being conducted within the premises. After watching the videos, Smith said a court would likely find the groups’ behavior willfully disruptive.
Dave, however, believes a public building should be open and available to everyone, adding how the city isn’t safe for residents who want their rights preserved.
While the city has received numerous phone calls since the videos posted, Dave said he’s received hundreds of death threats, but also hundreds of emails and phone calls from fans praising his actions and vowing to join his crusade the next time he visits Myrtle Beach.
“I won’t stop until I know for a fact the City of Myrtle Beach is safe from that corrupt law enforcement division. I will not stop,” Dave said. “I’m definitely coming back in full force and with a bigger group. I won’t stop exercising my rights until they’re respected.”