Although a number of press and civil liberties organizations declined to weigh in on a recent written request by the Office of Attorney General William Tong that Project Veritas retain documents relevant to its recent hidden-camera exposé of Cos Cob Asst. Principal Jeremy Boland, those who agreed to comment said that as long as the group was treated as any other news operation, the request was proper.
“The government has every right to investigate the possibility of discriminatory employment practices in the Greenwich public schools,” Rob Bertsche, a longtime general counsel to New England Newspaper & Press Association told CT Examiner. “But it does not have the right to go after Project Veritas merely because the Attorney General disapproves of what he calls ‘gotcha’ or ‘vigilante’ journalism.”
In the emailed response, Bertsche wrote that his views were his own, and did not necessarily represent the association.
Only time will tell, said Bertsche, whether the government’s goal was to investigate potential civil rights violations or intimidate a disfavored news operation.
“Whether or not you like Project Veritas or approve of its methods, there’s no principled basis for saying that it shouldn’t have the same legal rights as other news organizations,” said Bertsche.
“All the Attorney General has done, so far, is ask the organization not to destroy documents,” Bertsche wrote. “It hasn’t sent out any subpoenas yet, and for Project Veritas to say it has ‘attacked journalists’ by sending a document retention letter sounds more like fundraising rhetoric than legal argument.”
Bertsche said that Connecticut’s Shield Law protects Project Veritas from turning over unpublished information before the government has persuaded a court that the documents are necessary to investigate wrongdoing.
Project Veritas, a self-described journalism nonprofit, uploaded an heavily edited hidden-camera video on Aug. 30 in which the assistant principal claimed to have engaged in a variety of partisan and discriminatory hiring practices involving Greenwich Public Schools.
The following day, Tong announced a civil rights investigation into Greenwich Public Schools’ employment practices, and on Sept. 2 requested in letter that Project Veritas founder, James O’Keefe “preserve all material potentially relevant to this investigation [and] take immediate action to prevent the deletion or spoliation of any such material.”
The letter also suggested that the Office of the Attorney General would be issuing subpoenas for relevant material.
That request sparked complaints from O’Keefe that the request violated the freedom of the press.
According to Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, using journalists for prosecutorial purposes raises free press red flags, but that Tong so far did not appear to have overstepped his authority.
“No subpoenas have yet been issued,” Silverman wrote in an email to CT Examiner. “Attorney General Tong has only sent a preservation letter that, by itself, doesn’t compel disclosure of any materials.”
But Silverman also raised questions about whether Project Veritas, given its unknown involvement in the investigation, would be protected by the state’s Shield Law.
“If subpoenas are ultimately sent, these questions would need to be answered to determine whether the shield law applies or how appropriate AG Tong’s preservation order may or may not have been in the first place.”
Sandy Davidson, a professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and a UConn graduate, said during a phone call that she interpreted the document merely as a request to preserve relevant information.
“I don’t see anything extraordinary,” said Davidson.
Tommy Xie, a Fairfield University professor of Media Law and Ethics, said that it is Tong’s job to collect evidence as comprehensively as possible to conduct a thorough investigation.
“Given that Project Veritas was the one who broke the incident to the public, I think it makes perfect sense for the Attorney General to subpoena material from Project Veritas, assuming that the same kind of externally-requested preservation is also done at the Greenwich Schools,” said Xie.
In response to an emailed query, Greenwich Public Schools Director of Communications Jonathan Supranowitz confirmed that the district had in fact received an almost identical request on Sept. 2.
CT Examiner reached out to eight other press and civil liberties organizations. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut did not respond to emails and calls. The Connecticut Foundation for Open Government had no comment and the Connecticut Press Club recommended contacting the Society of Professional Journalists.
Lindsay Boyle, the president of Connecticut’s SPJ chapter, emailed back with what she called a “glorified no comment.”
“While we, as journalists, often file records requests, we aren’t qualified to speak on the civil or criminal investigative processes of the CT Attorney General or other similar offices,” Boyle wrote. “On behalf of CTSPJ, I respectfully decline to comment.”