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Friday, Mar 24, 2023

O’Keefe Promotes Himself in Uneventful Appearance

The controversial conservative activist James O’Keefe spoke on Thursday evening at the Courtyard Marriott hotel in Middlebury to a modest audience of college students and local residents.

Roughly 50 people, including about a dozen Middlebury students, were in attendance in the small event room in which O’Keefe delivered his lecture, though close to half of the attendees appeared to be members of the media. A two-man private security force was present at the event, and two Middlebury police officers conducted a sweep of the room with a police dog shortly before the event began. Middlebury police chief Thomas Hanley said police made periodic check-ins as well.

Hanley said that while the event’s organizers requested for two officers to be stationed there, the department only performed periodic safety checks.

“We declined the offer as we do not want our officers to be hired bodyguards,” Hanley said. “We suggested they contract with private event security for that purpose. They still requested presence.” The Marriott hotel management requested police presence as well.

Though his lecture was titled “Middlebury’s Problem With Free Speech,” O’Keefe only briefly mentioned the college during his appearance, which lasted for over an hour. Instead, his speech centered largely around his own career, and included defenses of the deceptive practices that have brought him criticism.

“[In] undercover work, you deceive in order not to be deceived,” O’Keefe said. “We’re using deception here in order to get these people to open up to us.”

While O’Keefe was speaking generally, his argument seemed also to rebut the scrutiny that he and his organization, Project Veritas, have recently faced for their tactics. Last week, the Washington Post reported that a Project Veritas employee had approached the newspaper falsely claiming to have been impregnated as a teenager by Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for Alabama’s vacant Senate seat.

The operation was an apparent attempt to discredit the Post’s coverage of other allegations against Moore, who has been accused by several women of having pursued them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. O’Keefe’s failed effort was met with widespread disapproval, including from the conservative National Review and Washington Examiner.

Some mystery still surrounds the events that brought O’Keefe to Middlebury. A group calling itself The Preservation Society sent two emails to all faculty, staff and students last Tuesday and Wednesday, promoting O’Keefe’s appearance and lamenting the state of free speech on campus. The group’s membership and origins are still unclear. Bill Burger, the college’s spokesman, said in an all-student email last Tuesday that no such group has approached the college to request recognition as a student organization.

However, in the Wednesday email, the group attempted to refute speculation that it is not composed of Middlebury students.

“Our group members, a handful of Middlebury students, came together and formed The Preservation Society out of a legitimate fear of punishment and/or sanctions from the University, or even violent retaliation from other students and faculty on campus,” the email read.

Samuel Zimmer ’20, who introduced O’Keefe at the event, hinted further at the group’s composition, although he is not himself a member. “A friend of mine, Bronson, a public member of The Preservation Society, approached me and asked if I could introduce Mr. O’Keefe tonight,” Zimmer said. “I’m deeply disturbed to hear from him that the other members of his group are too afraid to let their membership be known publicly to the school community.”

Zimmer was referring to Bronson Leyva ’18. In an email to The Campus, Leyva stated that he left The Preservation Society within the past week, but that multiple members remain in the group anonymously.

Responding to a reporter’s question at the event, O’Keefe said he had received “a few thousand dollars” from the Leadership Institute, a conservative organization based in Virginia, to speak in Middlebury.

Despite recent criticism, O’Keefe spoke defiantly.

“We are taking on the entire mainstream media, we have taken on the mainstream media for eight years,” he said. “We’re holding the most powerful people in the world accountable despite almost every possible economic and political force working against us.”

Will Frazier ’19, who watched O’Keefe’s speech along with Emma Helper ’19, said they had chosen to attend out of curiosity, not admiration.

“We attended because he’s essentially an embarrassment to journalism and was recently exposed once again, and we wanted to see how he could possibly defend his work,” Frazier said.

Frazier said that O’Keefe, while articulate, was ultimately unable to defend his tactics convincingly.

“We both think he spoke really well and was surprisingly eloquent in his defense of his arguments,” Frazier said. “But there were clearly many flaws in his defense and it immediately broke down upon examination.”