In graduate school, I wrote a comprehensive analysis of the legal ramifications facing James O’Keefe III for his undercover “stings” against ACORN and National Public Radio. In both scenarios, O’Keefe’s actions and the heavily edited videos that followed resulted in the firing or resignation of employees at both organizations, and, in the case of ACORN, the dissolution of the organization itself.
My conclusion based on privacy laws was that the individuals that appeared in the ACORN videos certainly had a case against O’Keefe and his partner, Hannah Giles, but only as a violation of their state’s two-party restrictions on recording. Due to the fact that none of the individuals featured were being targeted directly by the videos, it was ACORN itself that was the intended victim, the likelihood of proving “actual malice” in a defamation or false light case was slim.
Today, nearly three years after ACORN employee Juan Carlos Vera lost his job due to the misleading video released by O’Keefe, a settlement has been reached. Originally reported by Wonkette, O’Keefe will pay $100,000 in damages as part of the settlement, which was decided solely on the grounds that the surreptitious recording violated California law. It’s important to remember that O’Keefe and Giles were both immune from prosecution, because they handed over their unedited recordings to then-Attorney General Jerry Brown as part of his investigation of ACORN. Had they not received that immunity, both could have been charged with a felony or misdemeanor.
And the Vera part of the story is particularly frustrating. O’Keefe and Giles went into Vera’s office with a sordid tale of trying to bring underage girls across the Mexican border. Vera kept the conversation going in order to obtain as much information as possible before calling the police. The edited version of the video seemed to imply that Vera, and as a result ACORN, was offering sex trafficking advice.
Frankly, I don’t think $100,000 is much in the grand scheme of things, especially when you take into account the fact that O’Keefe made $65,000 on the ACORN videos.. Vera lost his job and his reputation certainly took a hit. But if I’m reading anything into the settlement it’s that Vera probably couldn’t afford to keep fighting the battle. It’s the primary reason the case was only brought on the specific charge of invasion of privacy based on the California law on recording. Had Vera had the time and resources, he could have gone after O’Keefe for defamation and/or false light. However, going up against someone with significant backing in Conservative circles would have been a costly affair.
I think there is a time and place for undercover reporting, but O’Keefe’s stings are rarely the appropriate time, place or subject matter. His methods are dishonest and his final products rarely tell the full story. Ultimately, though, it’s the media that is more to blame than anyone else. After learning more about the truth behind the ACORN and NPR stings, the media really should know better than to trust anything produced by O’Keefe or his organization, Project Veritas. Thankfully, while O’Keefe has continued to work, none of his operations have popped in the same way that the ACORN or NPR “investigations” did. Has the media learned its lesson? Let’s hope so.