First Amendment “auditor” Nathianial Thomas Plotner

The City of Morro Bay, specifically their Police Department, was under the microscope last week when a self-described “First Amendment auditor” claimed he was assaulted by the city’s police chief.

The auditor, Nathanial Thomas Plotner (or “Nasty Nathanial” on YouTube), went to Morro Bay to perform an “audit,” which consists of testing the tolerance of law enforcement’s observance of the First Amendment by videotaping around the station. In this case, Plotner recorded footage of officer vehicles entering and leaving the station before entering the lobby. Plotner was ultimately stopped by two officers, one of them being Morro Bay police chief Greg Allen, who asked for his identification. When he refused, Allen reached over to Plotner and the camera fell on its side, indicating he was forced onto the ground and detained.

Here’s footage captured by Plotner:

According to the Morro Bay Police Dept., Chief Allen had concerns about prior incidents involving individuals videotaping the back of police stations for more nefarious purposes. The officer beside him, whose identity was not disclosed, claimed videotaping inside the lobby was a violation of the Penal Code and was a misdemeanor. Under California law, there is no Penal Code violation for recording inside a police station lobby unless legally sensitive conversations are taking place inside.

Plotner and the “auditing” community determined the city failed the audit. The community called for the chief and his accompanying officer to be disciplined, fired and worse.

Following the incident were two live streams by Plotner and a fellow YouTube auditor named “Johnny 5-0.” In one of the streams, Plotner and 5-0 followed an unidentified man throughout Morro Bay after encountering him. For nearly an hour, they followed the man, shined a light in his eyes, blared a siren noise through a small megaphone in his ear, occasionally pushing and verbally taunting him. Ironically, the name of the video indicated they were being stalked. As a result of the video, the unidentified man’s alleged address, phone number and employer contact information was published. On YouTube, Plotner’s followers repeatedly and specifically threatened the man with bodily harm and death in various ways.

The facts are unclear, but at one point, Plotner and 5-0 had an encounter with members of the Morro Bay Chamber. As a result, Plotner’s supporters flooded the chamber with harassing and threatening phone calls, voicemails and emails. On YouTube, some of the chamber’s female employees were identified. They too received threats of physical harm, which included threats of sexual assault. The Chamber later issued a statement to their members, indicating there might be an “auditor” protest on February 10. They urged residents and business owners to ignore and not engage with people who threatened “to wreak havoc, cause traffic jams, leave messes, sit in hotel lobbies and not spend one dime” in Morro Bay.

Though no protest actually happened, the “auditor” movement continues to publish videos on Morro Bay. On Sunday night, more self-described “auditors” appeared to visit the Morro Bay police station.

The “auditor” controversy eventually made its way to the local news. KSBY covered the story on February 10, only to have their reporter Alexa Bertola being threatened for what Plotner’s supporters called “fake news.”

On social media, Facebook pages operated by the City of Morro Bay were flooded with negative, derogatory and threatening comments toward residents, business owners, city employees — anyone who dared to express the slightest skepticism over the auditor’s motives. I personally received harassing comments and threats when I observed that many of the commenters lived outside of the area and asked them unbiased questions. Some were gracious enough to answer my questions civilly while others felt I was somehow infringing on their right to express themselves.

To them, I ask: What about residents’ First Amendment rights? Or do they only apply to you?

But there are plenty of reasons to express skepticism of Plotner’s motives.

Plotner has a criminal record. In 2002, Plotner was charged and convicted for making a death threat against a Pismo Beach police officer. Charges included stalking, attempted extortion and making criminal threats after threatening to kill the officer unless the city paid him $1 million. He was sentenced to four years in prison. After he got out of prison, ten years later, Plotner was hit with a felony arrest for suspicion of violating his parole. After his stint in prison, Plotner re-emerged as a “First Amendment auditor,” showing the community how to properly “audit” law enforcement in training videos. Armed with a history of threatening law enforcement, Plotner arrived at the Morro Bay police station wearing all black military-style clothing. There was plenty of reason for law enforcement to be concerned.

The overwhelming amount of graphic and perverse comments from the “auditing” community adds another layer of concern. Comments calmly questioning the constitutionality of the officers’ actions are completely eclipsed by the movement’s clear intent to harm residents, businesses and law enforcement with no prior infringement of First Amendment rights. Instead of constructively working with law enforcement to increase their tolerance of First Amendment expression, the “auditor” movement engages in a conspiratorial witch-hunt that’s unnecessarily enveloped innocent people.

Sadly, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

In 2014, I reported on CalCoastNews’ peddling of a conspiracy theory claiming that Morro Bay business owners were conspiring with the City to stifle business competition — just as I’ve reported on every other conspiracy theory they’ve peddled throughout the years. The tabloid showed no evidence a conspiracy existed, yet businesses and individuals they identified as conspirators were harassed and threatened. The conspiracy extended into law enforcement, who CCN indicated was involved in unjustifiably red-tagging businesses that we later learned never had the proper permits to operate to begin with. That conspiracy was also fueled by a series of YouTube videos. Interestingly enough, some of Plotner’s supporters on YouTube suggested that CCN would be a more acceptable medium for their ire.

We live in interesting times.

There are plenty of reasons to question authority and our local leadership, but at what cost? Maybe Plotner has a point that he was unlawfully detained. Maybe he does, but why does he and his supporters rely on criminal harassment to get that point across? Why do his supporters feel it’s necessary to terrorize an entire community to get their point across?

Is that truly activism?

It’s not. It’s not activism when our local gadfly Kevin P. Rice does it. If anything, it’s cowardice.

Morro Bay is a lot stronger and unified than people give the city credit for. There may be political disagreements, but above all else, residents care for the city they live in. As a Morro Bay resident, I’m proud to stand with law enforcement, even if they make mistakes. Yes, there should be refresher courses on the First Amendment, but it should never be done at an entire city’s expense; it should never be expressed with acts of terror. If Plotner’s supporters and his fellow “auditors” realized that hate is no substitute for debate, we would be further along in the conversation with results that everyone across the board can agree on.

Until they act like grown-ups, wear a suit instead of military camo, and eliminate the death threats, the “auditors” will be ignored. But if they attempt to carry out any of their threats, we will fight back accordingly.

Aaron Ochs is a columnist, marketing entrepreneur and founder of SLO Truth. Ochs is also involved in his community as founder of Save Morro Bay (www.savemorrobay.com).

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