Project Veritas Beats Lawsuit for Secretly Recording Union Official

If the bartender can hear, there can't be an expectation of privacy.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
James O'Keefe

Love him or hate him, James O'Keefe has been establishing legal precedence throughout the nation. A conservative activist, O'Keefe's Project Veritas pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism through the use of undercover video and audio, and sometimes, fooling subjects — government officials, members of academia, community-based social organizations, etc. — into saying things they perhaps shouldn't.

Today's lesson in the art of ambush journalism comes from a Florida federal court, which has granted summary judgment to Project Veritas in a lawsuit. The lesson? If you're going to secretly record someone, maybe best to do it in a crowded environment.

The lawsuit was brought by Steve Wentz, the president of the United Teachers of Wichita, over a video titled "Teachers Union President to Kid: 'I Will Kick Your F***ing Ass.'"

Wentz complained that the videos and accompanying stories of how he was allegedly abusive to students was defamatory. He also claimed that a Veritas staffer had violated wiretapping statutes by recording his "off the record" story. He also tried to hold Breitbart liable for its own story, but ran into a jurisdiction problem.

In a decision on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge G. Kendall Sharp finds the alleged defamatory content "true, substantially true, or at least not provable as false."

But this being Florida, where Gawker got brought down for publishing an excerpt of a surreptitiously taken video, the wiretapping claim is perhaps of more interest.

Wentz had attended an education conference in 2015 and was on break at a bar adjacent to the lobby of the conference hotel when he was captured saying things into a small camera hooked up to a button on the clothing of journalist and videographer Allison Maass.

What Wentz said wasn't important for the purposes of wiretapping. Instead, what matters was the location.

"Unsurprisingly, background noise can be heard throughout the conversation," writes the judge. "Assuredly, multiple people, including but not limited to a bartender, were in close proximity to Wentz during the Bar Conversation. Upon review of the undisputed material facts, it is clear that Wentz did not privately communicate with Maass with the reasonable expectation that his statements would not be intercepted. Thus, the Court will award summary judgment in favor of Defendants...."

Here's the full decision.