SUMTER COUNTY, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Joshua Roberts was one right turn away from walking out the front door of the old Sumter County Courthouse. Another 30 or so yards and he would have considered his latest First Amendment audit a success.
Had he not run into Sumter County’s “media liaison.” A man named Joe Perry.
“Hi, what are you doing?” Perry asked Roberts and the man, known on YouTube as ‘No Name Audits,’ who accompanied Roberts on the audit. The men tried to explain they’d talked to Dennis Powell, Sumter County’s Facilities Manager, and confirmed the building was open to the public and open to cameras.
“You can go anywhere in the public access of that building on the first and second floor, third floor is off right now because there’s some renovation up there, but yeah, if you want to walk around the hallways, you’re welcome to there, it’s a public building,” Powell said in the auditors’ video.
“We talked to Danny already,” Roberts’ friend told Perry; misspeaking when he meant to say ‘Dennis.’ “Talked to Danny who?” Perry asked. “The building manager, the guy who runs the place,” No Name Audits told Perry.
Perry then turned to Roberts.
“Stop filming,” Perry demanded as he walked toward and reached at the large shoulder-held camera Roberts had propped on his right shoulder. “Whoa, whoa buddy back up,” Roberts told Perry as the meeting between the two quickly escalated.
“Want to see it on my video first? Want to see it?” No Name Audits asked Perry again. He was trying to show Perry the video of the county’s building manager confirming the building was open to the public. Perry would not watch the video.
“I don’t know who you are, I don’t know who Danny is,” Perry told the men. “I’m the communications coordinator,” Perry told the men, “You can’t come into a public building and film,” Perry said as he reached for Roberts’ camera again.
Roberts continued telling Perry to stay away and to not touch him. Perry pulls his cell phone out and tells No Name Audits again he doesn’t want to see the video of Powell welcoming the men into the building, “No, we’re calling law enforcement,” Perry said.
“You tried to attack me. Make sure you tell them you tried to attack me,” Roberts said as Perry was on the phone.
“Send law enforcement over here immediately,” Perry demanded in the call with 911 as he stood back and points his cell phone camera at the men. “We’ve got trespassers at the Sumter County Courthouse, they’ve yelled at me, they have not identified themselves, they’re falsely accusing me of trying to attack them,” Perry told dispatchers.
A body camera recording Roberts wore during the encounter shows No Name Audits walking away from Perry and moving toward the back door of the old courthouse. Perry followed him with Roberts alongside Perry moving toward the exit as the two continued arguing and Roberts asking Perry to stop following him and his fellow auditor.
“You’re on public property,” Perry told Roberts as he continued pointing a cell phone camera at Roberts and describing a ‘No F—ks Given’ patch Roberts had sewn onto a bulletproof vest.
“Crybaby Darren here, everyone,” Roberts said to Perry explaining in the video that Perry was acting like “the male version of a Karen.” Perry then turns to Roberts, “Why are you leaving then?” Perry asks as he reaches his hand toward Roberts once again.
Both Robert’s shoulder camera and body camera appear to show Perry making contact with Roberts’ chest area. Roberts would later clarify and tell law enforcement Perry “grabbed” his arm. The videos shake violently at the time of the contact and Perry’s hand is out of frame during the rustling.
Roberts shouts at Perry, “Don’t touch me! Do not touch me!” and Perry tells Roberts not to “assault” him.” The two continue walking toward the back door and eventually walk outside the courthouse. They continue to argue about their right to be inside the public building with cameras and Perry continues calling 911 for help.
After a few more minutes of arguing over being assaulted and Perry attempting to get law enforcement to respond, the men decide to walk to the Sumter Police Department building to file an assault complaint against Perry.
They didn’t know at the time Sumter Police moved months before into a new multi-million dollar building more than a half of a mile away, although their GPS showed the police department was located across the street from the courthouse.
Perry continued following the men, claiming they were “fleeing” the scene.
“My job is to find out why two people are walking around with cameras,” Perry told the men. “Because we’re filming the government buildings,” No Name Audit told Perry. “Why are you walking around on public property?” Perry asked, “Why are we walking on public property?” Roberts asked. “I’m a member of the public,” No Name Audits told Perry. “Why are you walking around with cameras and refuse to identify yourselves? The media is supposed to contact me, I’m the media liaison,” Perry told the men.
Neither the public – nor a member of a media outlet – is required by law or policy to contact a communications coordinator before video recording the public areas of a government building.
Perry continued following the men for several city blocks, continuing to call 911 for a total of five times demanding officers respond to his calls.
“They’re yelling at me, they have cameras. Send law enforcement over here immediately,” Perry told a dispatcher in one of the 911 calls provided to Queen City News in response to a South Carolina Freedom of Information Act request. “There’s people trespassing, main entrance, they have cameras, they’re yelling at me, send law enforcement over here,” Perry demanded in the call.
Dispatchers indicated in the call that officers could not find Perry because he wouldn’t stop following the men.
“He’s calling back on 911 again,” an unidentified dispatcher told an unidentified officer responding to the scene. “How many times has he called 911?” the officer asked, “Now he done walked to – he’s to the Gate station, he [sic] following these subjects,” the dispatcher told the officer. “10-4. Can you advise that individual to stop following the others into the 10-25 (inaudible) Gate station?” the officer asked the dispatcher.
“I’m trying to advise him, he’s just so irate, don’t want to listen…trying to tell him to stop following them,” the dispatcher told the officer.
Roberts’ video shows Sumter Police officers’ response to a gas station blocks away from the courthouse. The first officer on scene meets No Name Audits and begins reviewing his cell phone video of the building manager, Dennis Powell.
Perry then walks away from Roberts and climbs into the passenger side of a Chevrolet Tahoe that responded to the scene. Roberts’ video records the license plate and the vehicle identification number of the Tahoe Perry climbed into before a Sumter Police officer ushers Roberts away from the Tahoe.
Roberts’ video was recording when the Tahoe driver rolled his window down revealing the driver as Sumter Police Chief Russell Roark. The video shows the chief call one of his officers to the window and after a 26 second conversation, the chief drove away from the scene with Joe Perry as officers were investigating the assault claims against Perry.
The dispatch report shows four Sumter Police officer dispatched to the scene, but the report does not show Chief Roark was dispatched. QCN sent Roark and his public information officer a series of questions through email last week asking why he responded, why he wasn’t on the official dispatch report, and why he drove Perry away from the scene.
Chief Roark has still not responded to those questions.
“Can you stop him sir, he assaulted me,” Roberts tells one officer who is identified as a “lead corporal” in the police department. Roberts then explains what happened.
“It’s a civil issue,” the lead corporal told Roberts after Roberts asked the officers to file assault charges against Perry. “Would you like me to do a report for you?” the female officer asked. “Well, he just let them go so I don’t even know the dude’s (Perry’s) name. Did you get his name?” Roberts asked the officer.
“That’s easy for me to get,” the female officer told Roberts. Neither of the two other officers would give Perry’s name to Roberts to file the report. “Can I get the guy’s name that assaulted me?” Roberts asked the female officer, “Oh, I can’t give you that information,” the officer said.
Roberts said he wouldn’t give his information to the officers because he felt they were unfairly protecting Perry. The Sumter Police Department confirmed officers never filed a police report on the February 2021 Joe Perry incident.
THE CONCERN: ‘ANTI-GOVERNMENT’ INSURRECTION
“A lot of people may look at this and say, ‘Man, these guys are a bunch of troublemakers, bunch of instigators.’ Why do you do what you do?” Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr asked Josh Roberts during an interview. “The true test of liberty is the right to test it. So, I go out, and I express my rights…and I just go out and film in public,” Roberts said. “I’m not there to start trouble with anyone. I just want them to respect my right to record in public areas, and a lot of people, they just get upset. They get triggered, they get angry.”
“It’s just a test of liberty to see if they respect my rights,” Roberts said.
Roberts, like thousands of others across the country, perform what’s known as a First Amendment Audit where citizens armed with cameras show up in public places to record. They’re there to test whether government employees and law enforcement understand the public’s rights to record in public places.
The auditors post their video encounters to social media. Roberts runs a YouTube channel titled, ‘Pepperoni Audits,’ which has grown to more than 11,000 subscribers.
Roberts filed a criminal complaint against Perry on Feb. 26, 2021 – two days after his encounter with Sumter County government’s media contact person. Sumter County Sheriff’s Investigator T. Adams assigned the complaint a case number but did not investigate the case until directed to do so by Sheriff Anthony Dennis.
The following day, on March 2, 2021, Joe Perry walked into an interview room at the sheriff’s office where he was read the Miranda Warning and was interviewed by Investigator Adams.
“First of all, the video is heavily edited. You have to question someone’s credibility. I spent 20 years as a journalist and the many things that he did and said would never pass muster in the world of professional media,” Perry told the investigator referring to the edited video of the encounter Roberts posted to his YouTube channel.
Perry likely didn’t know at the time that Roberts had handed investigators the raw footage from his body camera, which showed the entire encounter with Perry inside the courthouse.
“I said, ‘Could you please stop filming while we talk?’ Well, they immediately became very aggressive, hostile, loud. I took one look at these individuals, and I can tell you, sir, I can tell right away they were not – they say, ‘We’re the media,’ and I said okay, ‘What organization?’ They refused to give their names, they refused to say what organization they were with,” Perry told the investigator.
Perry then raised a concern that he did not verbalize in any of the videos QCN reviewed from the sheriff’s investigative file: that Roberts and his fellow auditors might have been “insurrectionists.”
“I’m extremely mindful of what happened on Jan. 6 at our nation’s Capitol. People tried to overthrow the government, stop the election tally and all that as you’re well aware and it was a violent insurrection. These two individuals looked exactly like people who invaded the Capitol,” Perry explained. “So, was that your mindset, these two guys were part of – or maybe you’re thinking the same thing, some kind of insurrection or,” the investigator asked, “I was absolutely concerned, I knew right away they weren’t professional members of the media. This guy’s got a bulletproof vest on, he’s dressed all in black,” Perry said in the law enforcement interview.
“They were anti-establishment type of – he’s letting the world know that he’s anti-establishment, anti-government, whatever. I would later come to realize that that was founded. They’re anti-law enforcement, anti-government types, that’s what it seemed to me,” Perry said. “That made the back of my neck, the hair stand up. Law enforcement officers wear bulletproof vests, of course, because that’s their line of work. I don’t know why a civilian is walking around the courthouse filming the place.”
Perry also told the investigator the men did not have his permission to bring a camera into the old courthouse. The building does not hold judicial proceedings, but contains several county offices such as Veterans Affairs, Voter Registration, a solicitor’s office division, among others.
There also are no metal detectors or security posted at any of the four entrances to the building, indicating a low security concern.
The investigator questioned Perry about whether he assaulted Roberts during the encounter.
“This allegation of assault, there were several times – if it was inadvertent contact, it was totally an accident. And if I assaulted him, he walked into me. You can also watch another 25, 30 minutes of video, there’s no physical duress. He’s not injured in any way, shape, or form,” Perry explained, “According to the video, it looks like contact was made. Looks like you maybe put your hands up or, at any time did you try to swing at him, knock a phone out of their hand, to stop them, push them, or anything like that?” the investigator asked.
“I did not make any effort to assault them in any way, shape, or form. If I was gesticulating with my hands, that’s one thing. I know I did, at one point, put my hand in front of the camera and said, ‘Could you please stop filming while we talk?” Perry responded.
Perry told the investigator he’d received “numerous threatening and menacing in nature” voicemails and emails from unknown people after Roberts posted the video of their encounter to YouTube.
The investigator questioned Perry about his decision to follow the auditors for so long and whether Perry tried to detain the men inside the courthouse. Perry denied trying to detain Roberts as Roberts tried to leave.
“I wanted law enforcement to talk to them. I was concerned that, what do they want? Why are they in the courthouse walking around filming? Why would you be filming the hallway outside the register of deeds? It makes no sense,” Perry said. “Yeah, should I not have followed them? We can parse that all day long. I think certainly, yeah, for safety sake I probably should have stayed at the courthouse.”
Perry indicated he was frustrated with the time it took Sumter Police to get to the scene, which is why he continued to follow the men and continued to call 911, “Sumter Police officers were there, as well as Chief Roark. Chief Roark told me that they go around, go to different public buildings, and they try to instigate people and that’s basically what they do.”
“Did they ever identify themselves to you?” the investigator asked Perry, “Never,” Perry responded. “Never had a badge or name tags or anything,” the investigator asked. “Never. And that’s another thing is, when you’re a member of the media, you have one of these with your name and your organization and your picture and we would typically, because you know, for edification, I spent 20 – roughly 20 years as a newspaper reporter. And that’s one of the things you do right off the bat when you’re out in the general public is you say, ‘Hey, I’m Joe Perry, Florence Morning News.’ You have to do that. And you have to have some sort of identification,” Perry explained.
There is no requirement for media to carry identification or to show identification to a media liaison while recording video in public.
“The public has every right in the world to be in a public building. And members of the public have every right to be taking photographs in the public parts of those buildings,” Jay Bender told Queen City News. Bender, an attorney, is recognized as South Carolina’s expert on First Amendment law and the public’s right to access public places.
“Citizens have the same rights as reporters to be at places, to look at files, to ask questions of government, and to take photographs. Very often in South Carolina, and in other states, I’m sure, people who hold elective and appointive positions have come to believe that they are our rulers and not our representatives,” Bender said.
Perry did not respond to multiple emails asking to schedule an interview with QCN. Messages and calls to Perry’s boss, Sumter County Administrator Gary Mixon, also went unanswered.
We attempted to question Perry during a Sumter County Council meeting on May 24, but Perry did not say anything when asked multiple questions by Barr. Perry told the Sumter County Sheriff’s investigator he wouldn’t do what he did again.
“In hindsight, would I have done things differently? Sure. In the heat of the moment, I was greatly concerned that these were anti-government anarchists, whatever the case may be and they’re walking around – this guy’s by the way, also…he’s got a backpack on. I don’t know what’s in the backpack,” Perry said in the March 2, 2021 interview.
The sheriff’s office closed its investigation and sent it to Third Judicial Circuit Solicitor Ernest “Chip” Finney on March 19, 2021.
The case sat in Finney’s office for nearly 15 months, until we pressed the solicitor for am answer.
‘COVERING’ FOR A COUNTY EMPLOYEE
Our first attempt to find out what happened with the sheriff’s office investigation happened on March 9, 2022, with an email to Solicitor Chip Finney asking whether his office had finished reviewing the criminal complaint involving Joe Perry.
Finney never responded.
A follow-up email to Finney sent on March 23, 2022, asking for an update was again unanswered. Finney did not respond to two phone calls to his office requesting an answer to our inquiry.
On May 3, 2022, Finney finally responded after we sent an email asking Finney whether Perry, a county employee, was receiving favorable treatment. That afternoon Finney sent an email with a letter attached. The letter – dated May 3, 2022 – was his formal decision on whether to file charges in the Perry investigation.
“We find no substantial evidence which would support a prosecution of any assault by Joe Perry,” Finney wrote in the letter addressed to Sheriff Anthony Dennis. “The videotape and written statements submitted clearly show that Perry was seeking information from two men with cameras about their activities in a county building.”
The solicitor also wrote that Perry “attempted to block the exit of the cameraman,” something Perry denied he tried to do in his interview with law enforcement.
Finney wrote that since Roberts was not injured and “Perry showed no intent to injure, threaten or strike the men,” he could not charge Perry with an assault. There also was no “present fear of immediate harm” as evidence by Roberts following Perry “for a long distance,” Finney wrote.
Finney wrote that Roberts didn’t fear Perry, writing that Roberts “chided and demeaned” Perry by calling Perry an “idiot,” and a “f—king crybaby.”
The solicitor confirmed in a follow-up email from QCN that he personally reviewed the videos turned over from the sheriff’s office investigation. Finney also said “higher priority” cases caused the nearly 15-month delay in his office closing this investigation.
“I find it absolutely disgusting it would take that long. I don’t have an answer why it would take that long,” Roberts told QCN. “I think it should have taken possibly a couple of weeks, if not; no longer than a month to resolve this. It’s crazy that somebody else had to go out of their way to push the issue to get more information about it and how they just closed it up right after you started poking your nose into it.
Roberts said he believed the county was “covering” for its communications coordinator and would not return his calls in the weeks following the filing of his complaint.
“Had we not asked about it in the way we asked about it, where do you think it (the investigation) would be today?” Barr asked Roberts, “I think it would still be ongoing, it would be the very last piece of paper in their deck.”
“I just feel like you know, if it happened to anybody else like, say that it wasn’t Joe Perry who did it. But if I went to the courthouse and I put my hands on someone, the case would have been handled right away. I would have been prosecuted. I would have been probably convicted of assault and stalking probably from what it looks like in the video,” Roberts told QCN.
“Delaying it 15 months calls into question the legitimacy of the decision, but solicitors have almost unfettered discretion to decide what cases to prosecute,” Jay Bender told Barr, “The fact that it took 15 months to make that decision leads to a suspicion that maybe everyone was hoping it would just go away. They hadn’t counted on you asking questions.”
Roberts told investigators in his sheriff’s office interview in March 2021 that he’d be satisfied with an apology from Joe Perry. Roberts said Perry never apologized.