Oberlin College has joined an exclusive club that includes NPR, the New Jersey Teachers Unions, Planned Parenthood and ACORN — organizations that conservative activist James O’Keefe has infiltrated under false pretenses, secretly recorded and then sought to embarrass.
In a video posted on the conservative website Campus Reform Tuesday, an associate of O’Keefe posing as an Oberlin student named “Angela Boynton” asks College professors for support, saying she had been triggered by someone handing out the United States Constitution on campus. “Boynton” secretly videotaped the professors’ responses without their consent.
Responding to the fake student’s fabricated mental health issue, Professor of History and Director of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Carol Lasser called the Constitution an “oppressive document.” The video also shows Chair of Comparative American Studies Wendy Kozol saying, “The Constitution in everyday life causes people pain.”
The bulk of the video focuses on Vassar College, where administrators assisted the fake student in shredding the Constitution as a therapeutic measure. O’Keefe himself appears in the video dressed as the Constitution, distributing copies to Vassar students and asking women for their phone numbers.
To Oberlin Director of Media Relations Scott Wargo, the video represented a blatant violation of journalistic ethics.
“Posing as a student in crisis, secretly recording a private conversation and then strategically editing the footage in order to support a specific, predetermined agenda is deplorable,” Wargo wrote in an email to the Review.
Wargo also stated that the administration would not let this incident affect how the College operates.
“When someone reaches out to faculty and staff for support, saying they are a student, it is reasonable to take that at face value. We are not going to let one incident shatter the trust that inherently exists in our community.”
According to Lasser, both she and Kozol have received a large amount of hate mail since the video was posted. However, Lasser also stated that community support has made the experience less upsetting.
“One of the really lovely things that has happened as a result has been an outpouring of support from my colleagues and especially from students,” Lasser said. “And it’s been really wonderful to hear from students who have been terrifically supportive of me and Wendy Kozol, and we both really appreciate that.”
College junior Tory Sparks described the video as containing multiple “layers of bullshit,” including misogyny.
“[T]here is an inherent misogyny to all of it that we should be paying attention to,” Sparks said. “All of the victims to this were women — especially women professors, who are a minority in their own right. … At the very end of [the video], you see he’s very creepily hitting on someone, a woman, and she’s very clearly uncomfortable.”
Sparks also attacked the video for undermining mental health issues.
“There’s a mockery of a very serious mental health issue at stake and then a manipulation of the feelings of people who are concerned about that mental health issue,” Sparks said.
O’Keefe told the Review that he chose the College as a target for two reasons: the College’s reputation and the laws of Ohio.
“Oberlin is renowned for being a place where political correctness has been taken to the extreme,” O’Keefe said. “I doubt that someone like me has very many fans at Oberlin College. We typically work in what they call one-party consent states — that means it’s legal for me to secretly record.”
He then rejected the suggestion that his tactics breach journalist ethics.
“Mike Wallace used to do this type of work, and the guy who catches the predators on Dateline does this type of work; journalists have used pretenses for decades, and many of them have won Pulitzers and Peabodys and Emmy awards. There’s a long, storied tradition of undercover reporting.”
For O’Keefe, political correctness is nothing less than creeping totalitarianism.
“Political correctness has gone so far, and to such an extreme, that it borders on fascism and oppressing people’s right to express themselves freely,” O’Keefe said.
He suggested that, while college administrators and professors should take mental health seriously, Vassar administrators should have referred the “student” to a therapist instead of shredding the Constitution. O’Keefe also argued that Lasser and Kozol’s statements were controversial enough to merit coverage.
“What we do is we confirm suspicions. We visualize what people may already know to be the case. It does shock many people — it’s gone viral, hundreds of thousands of views now — so some people are shocked and disgusted by the opinions expressed by people in the academy.”
In a response to a question from the Review, Peter Fricke, a reporter for Campus Reform who wrote the article accompanying the video, stated that the Constitution can be considered sacred.
“Is it a sacred document in the sense that the Bible is a sacred document? Not really, because it doesn’t have the religious context. In the sense that many people venerate it as a source of wisdom? I suppose it would qualify for that label.”
Fricke also noted that Campus Reform played no role in producing the video and said that O’Keefe had “no affiliation” with Campus Reform.
But O’Keefe and the Leadership Institute — the conservative nonprofit that bankrolls Campus Reform — have deep ties. O’Keefe worked for Leadership Institute in his first job out of college before getting fired by the institute for potentially jeopardizing the nonprofit’s tax-exempt status by making overtly political statements. According to Fricke, there are “no hard feelings” between O’Keefe and the Leadership Institute.
O’Keefe briefly occupied the media spotlight in 2009 when he used similar tactics to portray ACORN, an organization that advocated for low-income families and registered millions of voters, as corrupt. O’Keefe’s video resulted in ACORN getting defunded both by the federal government and private donors, resulting in the organization’s liquidation. Investigations by prosecutors subsequently found that ACORN employees had done nothing wrong and that O’Keefe’s video was misleading, having been heavily edited.
According to Chris Faraone, an editor at DigBoston who covered O’Keefe extensively for the Boston Phoenix, a stunt like this represents a regression in O’Keefe’s oeuvre, as the man once at the center of the rightwing zeitgeist now tries to embarrass college professors and administrators.
“I’m not surprised that James O’Keefe is back testing his antics on college campuses,” Faraone wrote in an email to the Review. “He got his start in that environment, pulling pranks back in New Jersey at Rutgers [University]. … It’s more sad than anything else, his continuing this childish crusade to prove that college campuses lean to the left. Of course they do.”
Faraone added that, in his opinion, O’Keefe simply isn’t worth getting worked up about.
“Please tell anyone who came into contact with this impotent turd to take a shower and forget about him like everybody else he’s ever slimed. He’s not worth the attention, and that’s coming from someone who spent half of a year and flew out to Los Angeles writing about him.”