By WILL DIGRAVIO
This article originally appeared in The Middlebury Campus on November 28, 2017. It can be accessed online, here.
At half past three on Tuesday afternoon, the Middlebury community received a widespread email invitation to attend an event featuring a “renowned conservative activist” and hosted by The Preservation Society, a group whose origin and membership remain unclear.
The event, which as of Tuesday evening is scheduled to be held on Thursday, Nov. 30, is a speech by James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, an organization that aims to undermine the work of mainstream media organizations and left-leaning groups. It will be held at the Marriott Courtyard hotel in Middlebury and is not affiliated with the college or any official student group on campus.
Though The Preservation Society, which is “committed to bringing freedom of speech back to Middlebury College,” claimed to be comprised of Middlebury students, no such group exists in any official capacity at the college.
“We are unaware of any student group called The Preservation Society, which was named in the email as a host for the event,” said College Spokesman Bill Burger in an email to the community Tuesday evening. “No one claiming to represent such an organization has approached the college with a request for recognition as a student organization.”
“It is unfortunate that this email made it through the college’s spam filters,” Burger said. “Middlebury College has nothing to do with this event. Mr. O’Keefe has chosen to travel to town to pursue his own political and personal agenda.”
O’Keefe began the week in national headlines. On Monday, the Washington Post exposed a failed attempt by O’Keefe’s organization to feed a false story to the newspaper in order to discredit women who have accused Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for Alabama’s vacant Senate seat, of sexual misconduct. A woman employed by Project Veritas approached the Post and falsely claimed that Moore impregnated her when she was 15 and talked her into having an abortion.
Last month, the Leadership Institute, a national organization that “teaches conservatives of all ages how to succeed in politics, government, and the media,” reached out to several Middlebury students about potentially bringing O’Keefe to speak at the college this month. The students discussed the possibility with the Leadership Institute and with college administrators. Per interim college policies introduced last month, those wishing to host an event must submit a request three weeks prior to the date of the event. Because the group failed to meet that deadline, the college said they could not accommodate the event until January of next year.
But, shortly after missing that deadline, the group of students that had been contemplating whether to bring O’Keefe to campus decided to dissociate themselves from the event completely and not go through with having him speak here in January.
Multiple students involved in those discussions declined to comment on the record for this article, citing a desire not to be associated with Thursday’s event.
According to those students, the Leadership Institute decided to fund O’Keefe’s trip to Middlebury anyway, and have him speak at the Marriott to interested students and community members.
In an email to their membership, the executive council of the college’s American Enterprise Institute (AEI) club said they did not support the event and that it was “likely an attempt to embarrass students.” It was the college’s AEI club that invited Charles Murray to speak at the college in March of this year. Murray’s lecture was heavily protested by students and received media coverage nationwide.
“Project Veritas is known for using hidden cameras and other underhanded tactics to create videos for their donors and taking down institutions. This individual was brought in by the Leadership Institute,” the executive council said in the email.
Their email also urged students to “proceed with extreme caution” if they are contacted by Emily Faulkner, the Northeast regional field representative for the Leadership Institute
“She is a paid staff member of the Leadership Institute who has tried to set up a fake student org called ‘The Preservation Society,’” the email said. “This org has no Middlebury Student members and no index to reserve space on campus.”
“AEI does not support and is not involved with any of their events or actions. Please report any incidents involving individuals claiming to be part of the Preservation Society operating on college property to Public Safety,” the email said.
Burger told The Campus that the college was contacted by Faulkner about the event. Faulkner, according to her biography on the Leadership Institute website, works “as a full-time paid activist that identifies, recruits, and mobilizes students on college campuses to promote the ideals of a free society.”
According to Burger, Faulkner told him on Tuesday that students involved with The Preservation Society plan to request official recognition as a student organization after the upcoming holiday break. He said he did not know the names of any students involved and that they did not yet appear to have an advisor, a requirement for all student organizations. Faulkner told Burger she is helping recruit members for the new organization.
Faulkner did not return a request for comment.
The email announcing O’Keefe’s speech included a link to The Preservation Society’s website, which, as of Tuesday evening, is comprised only of a single form urging students to join.
Also included on the web page is a link to Facebook and Twitter pages. It is unclear when the Facebook page was made, but as of Tuesday evening it had zero likes. A profile picture and cover photo were added on Monday, Nov. 27. The Twitter page was created this month, and as of Tuesday evening had no tweets or followers and was following no other accounts.
A Campus reporter filled out a form on the organization’s web page requesting comment for this article, but did not receive a response in time for publication.