York County won't release policy on filming prison from public sidewalk — but says don't do it

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

York County officials have refused to release the county's policy for photographing and filming York County Prison from the public sidewalk in front of the facility. 

"We're not inclined to engage further at this point ... being that the ACLU is threatening legal action," county spokesman Mark Walters told The York Dispatch.

"We do have a policy, but we're not publicizing it at this point as it is under review and, also, because of the publicized threat of legal action," he said.

The county's unwillingness to answer questions about the issue meant they also declined to say what consequence or punishment could be in store for a citizen who violates the policy.

Walters did say that members of the York County Prison Board are aware of the issue but haven't yet met this month to discuss it. Also, he said, prison-board solicitor Donald Reihart has so far not briefed board members about his findings.

The board's next regularly scheduled meeting is Wednesday, Feb. 12.

On Tuesday, Feb. 4, Walters told The York Dispatch that Reihart had reviewed the policy and determined that, "In this case, the First Amendment doesn't trump security and safety of a facility."

Walters also said that "because of the security and safety of the facility being paramount ... certain policies prohibit the free use of photography."

This sign posted at the entrance of York County Prison said cameras aren't allowed in prison buildings or on prison grounds. It says nothing about prohibiting filming from the public sidewalk.

Springettsbury Township Police Lt. Brian Wilbur said his department would enforce a trespassing complaint for anyone trespassing on prison property, no matter what they're doing.

"If they are on the public sidewalk ... then it's up to the prison," he said. "We would not enforce it."

1st Amendment protections: The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania maintains that any member of the public can take photos and film while standing on public property and be protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Vic Walczak, the organization's legal director, has said the ACLU will take on the case if it receives a complaint from a member of the public who was told to stop photographing or filming there.

It was 58-year-old county resident Tom Shirey who got people talking about the issue, after he was approached Jan. 22 by a prison official and told to stop filming the prison from the public sidewalk.

Tom Shirey

Shirey considers himself a First Amendment activist who films buildings from public property to see if he is challenged. He then posts his videos on YouTube under the name First Capital Transparency, including his Jan. 22 encounter.

The York Dispatch on Jan. 24 reported about Shirey being told to stop filming, which caused county officials to have prison-board solicitor Reihart to review the policy and, this week, stand by it.

Reihart maintains that allowing people to take photos of the prison could highlight vulnerabilities at the facility, according to Walters.

"While it's a public sidewalk, it falls under the distinction of being right in front of a secure facility," the spokesman said.

More:Say what now? York County solicitor 'believes' this trumps First Amendment

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

Public's right: Walczak told The York Dispatch on Jan. 24 that any member of the public has the right to film from a public sidewalk.

"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," he said.

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

Shirey said he hopes prison officials reconsider down the road and said he'll continue conducting unannounced First Amendment audits.

"It's a shame that the prison feels that way," he said. "I can understand where they are coming from — safety. But their feelings don't trump our rights. ... You and I both know that the First Amendment is the law of the land."

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