York County Prison workers confront First Amendment activist recording on public property (VIDEO)

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

A York County man who was stopped from filming York County Prison while standing on the public sidewalk in front of the facility said his goal is to educate people about the importance of the First Amendment.

Tom Shirey, 58, of the East Prospect area, said he conducts First Amendment audits by going to public areas and filming, to see if he's challenged.

"Some people say that First Amendment activists are just there to bait the police ... and to see how far they can take it," he said, adding he agrees that happens sometimes. "Others believe in the Constitution and our God-given right (to free speech)."

Shirey considers himself to be in the latter category. He posts his videos on YouTube under the name First Capital Transparency.

Tom Shirey, 58 of East Prospect, was conducting a "first amendment audit" at the York County Prison recently when he was approached by a prison official telling him he couldn't film the facility from a public sidewalk.
Sunday, January 26, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

"If you don't use your rights, you tend to lose them," he said.

So on the afternoon of Wednesday, Jan. 22, Shirey stood in front of the prison and started filming, prompting a prison lieutenant and a man who did not identify himself to approach him, he said.

In that nearly six-minute video, titled "Misinformed Lieutenant, York County Prison, York, PA, 1-22-20," Lt. Hare tells Shirey that filming from the sidewalk is prohibited and points out the sign at the front entrance stating as much.

Shirey counters that the sign applies to people who are on the property.

"I'm going to ... ask that you stop filming onto the property, on the directions of the warden himself," Hare says on this video.

York County refused to release Hare's first name.

When Shirey asks what will happen if he doesn't comply, Hare says that decision would be up to Warden Clair Doll, and he again asks Shirey to stop filming.

"Are you aware that the eyes cannot trespass?" Shirey asks.

"I understand that, sir, but what I'm telling you is, you're not allowed to photograph into the prison or the property," Hare replies, then gives Shirey the name of Mark Walters, the county's public information officer.

Hare asks Shirey for his name, which Shirey declines to divulge, saying that he values his privacy.

"As do many people here," Hare counters.

East Prospect-area resident Tom Shirey was filming video of York County Prison on Jan. 22, 2020, when a prison supervisor informed him that was not allowed. Shirey said he is a First Amendment activist with First Capital Transparency.

'Traditional public forum': Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, told The York Dispatch on Friday, Jan. 24, that any member of the public has the right to film from a public sidewalk.

"The videographer has it right — the lieutenant was misguided in his interpretation of the law," Walczak said. "That's what's called, under the First Amendment, a 'traditional public forum' and it's the kind of government property that's most protected for free-speech activities. ... We've sued over that right in Pittsburgh and won."

Walczak said the prison has the right to restrict any kind of recording on prison property, but that does not include the public sidewalk.

Tom Shirey, 58 of East Prospect, was conducting a "first amendment audit" at the York County Prison recently when he was approached by a prison official telling him he couldn't film the facility from a public sidewalk.
Sunday, January 26, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

"If the guy wants to stand there and record, he's got the right to do that," he said.

Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said the issue of authorities trying to prevent the public from taking photos or video in public places has been ongoing for many years.

"I spend a great deal of time training police on First Amendment issues so journalists and citizens don't get interfered with or arrested — and so police agencies don't get sued for violating citizens' First Amendment rights," he said. "We see this all the time."

Walters confirmed that Shirey contacted him. He also said the county solicitor's office is now reviewing what happened to determine what's legal and where the boundary line is.

"We're looking into it," Walters said. "We want to know."

'We're reasonable': The normal policy, Walters said, is for media to contact him prior to filming in front of the prison, as he can grant access beforehand.

"We're reasonable," he said. "You can park in the parking lot. You can set up on the sidewalk and can have the backdrop you are seeking."

Tom Shirey of First Capital Transparency and Thru the Veil Investigations

Walters said it's the first time a private citizen contacted him about filming the prison.

"This was a unique circumstance that has required the county to review policies and procedures, and consider what can and can't be done," Walters said.

Shirey — who spent 31 years as an EMT for Canadochly Valley Ambulance and was a firefighter in the Yorkana community — said that's what he hoped would come of the encounter.

He also said he had no problem with Hare asking what he was doing.

"I feel (authorities) do have the right to come out and check you out, to see what you're up to," he said.

In the video, Hare remains calm and speaks respectfully to Shirey. He walks back into the prison without trying to stop Shirey from filming him.

Despite that, some commenters on Shirey's YouTube video have had harsh words for the lieutenant.

"He was just doing what the warden directed him to," Shirey said of Hare.

Shirey is also a paranormal investigator with Thru the Veil Investigations.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.