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YouTubers film, insult public workers in towns across Mass. for self-declared ‘First Amendment audits’

Arlington town manager Sandy Pooler was a recent target of a YouTuber filming in the Town Hall, claiming to be a First Amendment advocate.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The scuffle in Lexington’s public library last month was short but seen by thousands: a patron grappled with another man as they wrestled over a camera tripod, as the confrontation was livestreamed on YouTube.

Two men, Joshua Abrams and Leonard Filipowski, had set up the camera inside the library to conduct a so-called First Amendment audit, a kind of performative protest that tests their free speech rights by confronting government employees in public places, often provoking objections that generate viewership.

It sure enough worked in Lexington, though in this case it was a private citizen, the library patron, who reacted. Abrams and Filipowski egged on the man until the patron got so angry that he wrestled the tripod from Filipowski’s hands. He then ran to the library’s front desk, where staff called Lexington police for help.

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Online, commenters watching live weighed in: “LOVE THE DRAMA,” wrote one.

The Lexington incident, which was viewed around 29,000 times since it was posted about three weeks ago, was but one of many in Massachusetts and around the country where vocal Youtubers have provoked a reaction among public officials, in turn often attracting tens of thousands of views each.

For municipal workers, the stunts add to the rash of hostile behavior many face these days. Critics — including those who have had unintentional starring roles — said the actions are a cynical attempt to provoke people to act out in order to attract attention.

“What this has to do with the First Amendment is not at all clear to me,” said Sandy Pooler, Arlington’s town manager, who was featured in one of Abrams’s videos last month.

In the video, titled “TYRANT TOWN BOSS BARKS ORDERS & LOOKS STUPID!,” Abrams is seen swearing at Pooler while wandering around an office space used by town workers.

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“They’re not just coming in and filming, but they are saying nasty and juvenile things to people to get a rise out of them,” Pooler said.

Abrams is one of the more prolific local creators of such videos, which generally follow the same basic formula.

He’ll enter a city hall or other public building, usually with another Youtuber making their own video. They wander around, stop when they encounter public employees, and record them on the job. They’ll move along if there’s little reaction, but they sometimes ask questions and film how employees respond.

In a video Abrams recorded in Lynn, he argued with a worker about a city regulation and told him “shut that mouth.” Abrams told the man the public has a right to insult city staff.

“I’m not going to be insulted,” the worker told Abrams in a video.

“Yes, you will be. You work for us,” Abrams replied.

In another video recorded at Wakefield Town Hall, he asked workers on camera, “Who’s the stupid-visor?”

In an interview, Abrams said he is trying to educate the public about their freedom of speech rights, and remind public officials to respect them.

“I’m very nice to everybody, unless it’s an issue where they’re questioning my rights,” he said.

Youtuber Joshua Abrams (left) filmed himself with Arlington town manager Sandy Pooler during Abrams's self-described First Amendment audit of Arlington Town Hall in April.YOUTUBE

Massachusetts cities and towns are devising response plans. Among the ideas: posting signs that designate “employee only” areas and barring filming in areas with sensitive materials in plain view, such as social services offices.

“Every community will have not only thought about this, but probably over time will be subjected to a First Amendment audit,” said Geoff Beckwith, who leads the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

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Courts across the country have treated filming public officials engaging in their duties in public places as a protected form of expression under the First Amendment, according to Kristi A. Nickodem, an assistant professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina.

The “audit” videos began appearing before the pandemic and grew out of the practice of filming police officers, Nickodem said. There doesn’t seem to be an organized group behind it, but Nickodem said it’s driven in part by a growing distrust of political institutions. The allure of Internet notoriety is also a draw, as some viewers have been spurred on to make their own videos. Now there are “thousands and thousands” of such videos that have been recorded across the country, she said.

Governments are grappling with exactly what restrictions can be put into place, Nickodem said. Communities can regulate speech — a noise ordinance, for example. Those rules are now being considered by the courts.

In Punta Gorda, Fla., a federal court ruled that a local restriction on video and audio recording at city hall without consent of the person being taped was “reasonable and viewpoint-neutral,” according to Nickodem.

While many of the encounters are peaceful, videos of confrontations between a public worker and Youtubers tend to get more attention, Nickodem said.

“Sometimes that escalation is coming from the government employee or official. But often, the initial sort of escalation or harassment seems to be coming from the person who’s filming,” Nickodem said.

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Abrams, who said he is a Townsend resident, began creating the videos about four years ago, he said. This is now his full-time job, he said, and his Youtube page has about 121,000 subscribers. He derives income from advertisements that appear with the videos.

Abrams is on probation after pleading guilty in October 2020 to two counts each of unarmed robbery and witness intimidation and one count of armed assault to rob in connection with a string of robberies in Lowell two years earlier, according to filings at Middlesex Superior Court.

Joshua Abrams (center) during his arraignment before Judge Richard Sinnott at Boston Municipal Court following his arrest during the 2019 Straight Pride Parade. Abrams pleaded guilty to resisting arrest, according to court filings.Faith Ninivaggi/Pool

Before the Lowell case concluded, Abrams was charged by police for resisting arrest in connection with the Straight Pride Parade in Boston in 2019. According to a Boston police report, Abrams was among 16 people who were arrested when they were blocking Congress Street near Hanover Street. In an interview with WBZ-TV before his arraignment, Abrams said “multiple times I asked why I was arrested. He [the officer] said ‘for calling me a pig.’ Well, that’s my First Amendment right to do so.”

He pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge in April 2021. In an interview, he said he was at the parade to record interactions of police and the public.

Because of his experiences with police, Abrams said, he wanted to learn more about his rights, and gravitated to those issues at the local level.

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“I really wanted to start focusing on city halls to see if the center of government in our local areas defended the rights of we the people,” he said.

In Lexington, town officials said it was legal for Abrams and Filipowski to record inside the Cary Memorial Library on April 28.

Abrams and Filipowski approach staffers and record each for 30 to 40 seconds at a time. There’s little reaction, and the YouTubers move on.

Abrams and Filipowski come across a man seated at a table using a laptop computer. They tease him, talking as if the man was starring in a film. When the patron asks who they are, Abrams offered a sarcastic reply: “I’m a human being.”

The patron repeatedly asks them to stop. “I don’t want to,” Abrams replied.

Quickly, the patron and Filipowski are wrestling over the equipment.

Lexington police later said in a report that the patron, an Acton resident, did not know he could be recorded in the building. No charges were filed, and the patron apologized to Abrams and Filipowski.

Filipowski and Abrams, in separate interviews, said they did not intend to provoke the people who appeared in their videos.

“It is not to instigate or agitate,” said Filipowski of the library video. “I didn’t make the guy go hands on me.”

The attention directed at local governments doesn’t necessarily end when the Youtubers leave.

An official in Massachusetts whose community was featured in one of Abrams’s videos said the worst part came after the video was posted, and staffers received e-mails and phone calls from Abrams’s “army of Internet trolls.”

“We had to send an employee home the day after the incident because the employee broke down under the nonstop phone calls,” said the official, who asked that he and his community not be identified due to the video’s impact on staff.

Paul Bockelman, the town manager in Amherst, said his town hall was visited by another Youtuber in August. In that video, YouTuber Marc Manchon followed employees, at one point describing them as scattering “like cockroaches.”

In response to a request for comment, Manchon said in an e-mail, “You know so much about me already what else is there to say, right.”

After that video was posted, Bockelman said town staff faced angry, abusive calls and e-mails.

“I think it is a commentary on the deteriorating state of public discourse,” Bockelman said. “It’s sad.”

John R. Ellement and Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.