Tom Shirey talks about prison video encounter York Dispatch


York County's crusade against basic constitutional rights isn't just limited to inmates, apparently.

That's what was exposed this past week when self-described First Amendment auditor Tom Shirey aimed his video camera at York County Prison.

Within minutes, Shirey — standing squarely on a public sidewalk — was confronted by two county employees advising him he should stop recording. Shirey pressed the issue, asking why he was being advised to stop recording.

The two employees — who remained polite throughout the interaction — said the edict came directly from Warden Clair Doll.

Unfortunately for Doll, the county's position is a clear violation to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For decades, federal courts have recognized photography as a form of free expression. As such, capturing images from public spaces is an exercise in free speech. 

Or, as Shirey said, "the eyes can't trespass."

It's hard to believe York County's attorneys didn't know this. Nor is it possible they're unable to do a quick Google search for relevant court cases.

The situation would be troubling enough if this past week's incident was a one-off. But the trend it exposes is far worse: Shirey's run-in represented the second time in the past year York County Prison was caught flouting basic constitutional rights.

Just this past spring, county officials walked back its legal mail policy for inmates, which violated due process and search and seizure provisions. They only did grudgingly so, however, after civil libertarians threatened a lawsuit. 

In both instances, county officials have cited "security" as the primary driver for their imposition of unconstitutional mandates. The now-dead mail policy was an overreaction to reports of a drug smuggling ring. And, when asked about Shirey's video, county officials said it was about protecting officers.

York County's excuse is a symptom of an illness that's run rampant throughout the U.S. since the 9/11 attacks.

Sacrificing liberty for the appearance of safety is neither appropriate nor compelling, especially when the government cannot demonstrate an actual threat.

In the days since Shirey's "audit," York County has gone silent. Repeatedly, The York Dispatch has asked about it's "review" of its policy that runs counter to established precedent.

As with last year's mail policy fiasco, York County officials must first work through the classic stages of grief before accepting that citizens' rights trump their senseless desire for control. 

They've denied wrongdoing. They've complained that the policy is a necessary safety precaution. They will grow depressed upon the realization that they're wrong.

And then, they'll accept reality and find another protected right on which to infringe. 

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