On January 19, a video surfaced on YouTube depicting Russell County (AL) Probate Judge Alford M. Harden, Jr. and county staff at the Russell County Courthouse interacting with a member of the press. In the video, the journalist, known as Russ, appeared to be ignored by the county staff and was informed that he was not welcome there.
Russ visited the courthouse to assess how public employees and officials would react to a member of the public monitoring the allocation of tax dollars. He only interacted with those who approached him first. When no one engaged with him, he stood silently, recording his video. Some employees seemed uneasy about Russ filming with a camera and questioned him, stating that video recording was prohibited in government offices.
The “Tag & Tax Office” requested the presence of sheriff deputies after the video was taken. When the deputies arrived, they informed Russ that recording was not permitted, despite him being in a public area. They called for a supervisor and accompanied Russ as he moved throughout the building.
The deputies accompanied Russ as he made his way to different offices, staying by his side as the supervisor, Sgt. Amber Lisle, arrived at the scene. Russ was currently situated in the Probate Judge’s office, where he was inquiring about the cost of copies of documents, even if those “copies” were actually photographs that he intended to take.
Sgt. Lisle confirmed that she and Sheriff Heath Taylor had already addressed the issue and concluded that it is legal to capture video footage in public areas. The staff of the Probate Judge reiterated that there is a fee of $1.00 per page for copies of any records, as mandated by state statute.
According to Alabama Code § 36-14-3, fees can be charged for the reproduction of documents. The code states that “The Secretary of State may charge the person for whom the service is rendered.” Subsection (1) of this section specifies the fees as follows: “$1.00 per page for reproducing any law or other material, and $1.50 for the annexation of the seal of the state.”
It appears that the staff is referring to this particular statute. However, Judge Harden did not specify the exact law that justifies the fee. It is worth noting that no other section of the Alabama Code addresses charges for copies of public documents. Typically, the purpose of charging for copies is to reimburse the office for the costs associated with making the copy. During the discussion, Russ argues that there should be no fee for a photograph of a document taken by a member of the public, as no work or materials are required to reproduce the document.
Judge Harden arrived and verified his team’s comprehension of the law, determining that there would be a $1.00 charge for the page Russ “photographed” with his video camera. When Russ questioned the fee, arguing that no office resources were utilized, Judge Harden insisted that if Russ declined to pay, he would have to delete the photo.
According to Judge Harden, if the fee is indeed mandated by state statute, and if Russ refuses to pay for the photo he took of a document, it could be considered a criminal act. In this case, the photograph or video of the document would serve as evidence. By suggesting that Russ should delete the photo or video, Judge Harden appears to be endorsing the destruction of potential evidence related to the perceived crime.
Later in their conversation, Judge Harden appears to have a problem with the media examining the operations of his office. He “allows” Russ to keep the video he recorded without paying the fee. However, he starts asking Russ about his connections to Russell County. Judge Harden firmly believes that his responsibility is solely to the citizens of Russell County and not to anyone else in his position.
He proudly displays a copy of the United States Constitution on the wall in his courtroom. However, his actions in trying to hinder Russ’s investigation into the segregated marriage records and his apparent bias against “outsiders” suggest a lack of comprehension of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, which he claims to cherish.
The First Amendment ensures freedom of the press, while the Fourteenth Amendment ensures equal protection and access.
Judge Harden appears to disregard the phrase “for whom the service is rendered” when enforcing the fee requirement. Moreover, he tries to limit a journalist’s ability to report on this matter by suggesting that they pay a fee or delete the video footage. Additionally, he exhibits bias against individuals who did not vote for him.
Judge Harden and Russ had a conversation that ended with the judge storming away without listening to anything Russ said. When asked if Russell County is still part of the United States, the judge’s response indicated a lack of knowledge. Russ accurately described the judge as an “ignorant judge,” which many would agree with. In a concerning turn of events, Judge Harden began taking off his jacket and appeared ready to approach Russ with physical aggression.
Sgt. Lisle deserves credit for stepping in and preventing the judge from having that opportunity. However, it appears that she starts exhibiting Judge Harden’s tyrannical tendencies at this point.
Sgt. Lisle informs Russ that “name calling” will not be tolerated, despite the fact that the United States Supreme Court has ruled that speech critical of public officials is protected under the First Amendment. Many view her statement as a concerning limitation on Russ’s right to express his grievances with the judge.
In another part of the building, Russ encounters an obstacle when attempting to submit an Open Records Request. Sgt. Lisle denies Russ entry into a public lobby, claiming that there is a couple inside engaging in potentially private affairs. Despite Russ questioning why such activities are taking place in a public area, Sgt. Lisle appears to be violating Alabama Criminal Code § 13A-6-40. This code explicitly prohibits the intentional and unlawful restriction of a person’s movements without their consent, thereby substantially interfering with their liberty, through physical force, intimidation, or deception.
Sgt. Lisle initially supported Russ’s right to film in public offices, but he later appeared to follow Judge Harden’s lead and prevented Russ from exercising those very rights.
Judge Harden appears to lack knowledge regarding the correct implementation of the Alabama Code when it comes to charging fees for document copies. As Russ pointed out, this ignorance extends to the rights of all citizens, irrespective of their residency in Russell County or elsewhere. Moreover, his conduct and language, which indicate a lack of respect for citizens, can have a detrimental influence and lead others to disregard their sworn duties.