Conservative activist James O’Keefe, whose organization Project Veritas seeks to expose left-leaning bias in the media, spoke uninterrupted Thursday night in Middlebury, Vermont — two miles from Middlebury College. Middlebury College drew national attention in March, when leftist protesters put one of Middlebury’s professors in the hospital, due to the violent protesting of a speech by libertarian author Charles Murray. Both the college and conservative campus organizations have distanced themselves from O’Keefe, and condemned the student group that invited him to come.
Roughly 40 people, including members of the media, local residents, and students attended O’Keefe’s speech, entitled “Middlebury's Free Speech Problem.” Rather than talk about Middlebury College, however, O’Keefe focused on his organization’s goals and methods to counteract media bias, showing numerous Veritas videos, including media clips of his role in bringing down the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) in 2009. He defended his techniques of using hidden cameras and disguises to infiltrate the media, calling himself “an undercover journalist.”
“We believe people are not always honest when you just stick a microphone in front of their faces,” he said. “But we don’t believe the criticism is really about our beliefs. It’s about who we go after.”
He also defended his organization’s practice of selectively editing, arguing that all newspapers selectively edit.
“As I was coming to this building, I was on the phone with the Washington Post, and I gave them a comment they didn’t run,” he said. “They selectively edited me!”
He argued that because the mainstream media ignores much of his organization’s work, he sometimes has to get creative. He showed a clip of Fox News’ Sean Hannity interviewing Donald Trump Jr., in which he walked up “and stood there like a dolt for a few minutes.”
“That’s one way to get on television,” he said to audience laughter.
The Preservation Society, an unofficial Middlebury student group hosted the event, after failing to meet the college’s deadline that requires at least three weeks between a speaker request and the event’s scheduled date. The Middlebury Campus newspaper reported that the Leadership Institute, a conservative organization that provides professional career training, contacted several Middlebury students in October about bringing O’Keefe to the campus in November. The college informed the students that the earliest it could accommodate them would be in January. The Leadership Institute, however, decided to sponsor O’Keefe’s event at an off-campus location on Thursday for students or community members who wished to attend.
On Tuesday, a campus-wide email invited Middlebury students to the event and provided a webpage on which to RSVP. College spokesman Bill Burger responded by sending out an email to the campus community, apologizing that the college’s spam filter did not block the invitation, adding, “We are unaware of any student group called The Preservation Society, which was named in the email as a host for the event.”
However, Burger told the Middlebury Campus that the Leadership Institute’s Northeast Regional Field Representative Emily Faulkner had, in fact, informed him that day “that students involved with The Preservation Society plan to request official recognition as a student organization after the upcoming holiday break.”
Burger went on to claim that O’Keefe was only coming to town “to pursue his own political and personal agenda.”
Project Veritas’ Marco Bruno disputed Burger’s accusation via email, saying, “As far as anyone impugning Mr. O'Keefe motives for going to the event for ‘personal’ or ‘political’ gains, I'd like to bring up that for-profit news media companies 'solicit for funds' through commercials every eight minutes.” He added that “most of the media personalities bemoaning James' salary have seven, if not eight-digit contracts themselves.”
In an effort to stymie any efforts by The Preservation Society to recruit, the college urged students to “be wary of anyone asking about their political beliefs.”
The Middlebury College Republicans joined Burger's attacks on O’Keefe, sending an email to students, reassuring them that they would “never extend an invitation to an individual known for using false identities, fictitious cover stories, and concealed cameras to target media organizations and other institutions.” The group also urged its members not to attend.
The American Enterprise Institute club, the campus organization that invited Murray, also denounced O’Keefe in an email to its membership according to the Middlebury Campus.
“This individual was brought in by the Leadership Institute.” The email warned its members against Faulkner, urging them to proceed “with extreme caution” if she tried to contact them.
Neither Faulkner, nor the Leadership Institute has claimed that the Preservation Society is yet a recognized student organization, and the invitation flyers to O’Keefe’s event explicitly stated the event’s location as the Courtyard Marriott, located off-campus.
“Establishment Republicans don't like Project Veritas any more than the mainstream media does,” said Bruno. “They don't mind promoting our work when it is to their advantage, but they are so risk-averse and afraid of bad ink that they chicken out whenever the media bullets start flying.”
The Middlebury College AEI club did not return a request for comment in time for publication.
A police canine combed the room before the event began and security remained heightened throughout the evening; O’Keefe’s speech proceeded without incident.
Jacob Grandstaff is a graduate student at the University of North Alabama and a journalist who enjoys writing about institutional and governmental policies that affect millennials.