James O’Keefe: Portrait Of An Activist As A Campus Gadfly

January 29, 2010 8:14 a.m.

James O’Keefe and his brand of Candid-Camera activism first appeared on the national stage with last year’s ACORN pimp scandal. But the origins of O’Keefe’s methods go back to his time at Rutgers, where he launched an alternative newspaper, carried out his first video sting operations, and generally cultivated an image as campus conservative gadfly.

After graduating in 2006, but before he launched the stunt video career that landed him in jail in New Orleans this week, O’Keefe became one of those recent alumni who couldn’t let go, hanging around Rutgers’ New Brunswick, New Jersey, campus as resident right-wing agitator.

“His small band of true-believers took him very seriously as its leader,” says Rutgers history professor Jim Livingston, a self-described Marxist and the onetime faculty adviser for the conservative newspaper O’Keefe founded, The Centurion.

Within his small conservative crowd, at least, O’Keefe soon became a celebrity for stunts like the time in 2004 he sought to expose the bankruptcy of diversity policies by trying to convince a university official to ban Lucky Charms from the dining hall. O’Keefe said he was from the Irish heritage society and pleaded cereal’s leprechaun pitchman was an offensive stereotype. Watch:

A philosophy major, O’Keefe began his college career writing op-ed columns for the mainline campus paper, The Daily Targum.

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His columns for the Targum tended to rely heavily on the conservative-as-victim-on-liberal-campus narrative. Here’s part of one effort, “The conservative manifesto,” from 2003:

As a citizen of this country, it is my right to have a balanced education. Attention is not focused on the imbalance, but rather that it’s stubborn for people like me to still remain conservative. Conservative reason is viewed as intrinsically wrong. This logic is beyond flawed – it’s pathetic. Students can’t defend its reason because their fundamental way of being taught is skewed!

“How so?” the skeptic wonders. …

O’Keefe stopped writing for the Targum for unclear reasons (there’s a report that he was fired), and decided to launch an alternative conservative publication.

The Centurion was born.

Livingston, who was on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum from O’Keefe, had signed on as faculty adviser for the new paper in the spirit of free speech, with the condition that he get column space in each issue. (See page 18 here.)

“After the second column, O’Keefe started running a rejoinder right next to it or below it,” he tells us.

Unhappy, Livingston complained. “I thought they had violated our contract. So I said, ‘Hey, you people are conservatives, you people should believe in contracts.” At that point, O’Keefe angrily fired Livingston. “By this time, they had begun to receive funding from various right-wing organizations,” he says. We’ve reported that the Leadership Institute, which fosters the growth of conservative student media and later employed O’Keefe, awarded the Centurion a $500 “Balance in Media” grant.

The Livingston episode wasn’t the only time O’Keefe clashed with a faculty member at Rutgers.

Here’s another video from 2005 in which O’Keefe and College Republican Darren Cimillo argue with English Professor Richard Dienst. A few days after Cimillo disrupted a lecture by a liberal speaker and Dienst called the police, O’Keefe decided to confront Dienst — and secretly record the encounter — for allegedly abridging his friend’s First Amendment rights. Here’s the result:

O’Keefe later wrote about the incident in a Centurion piece titled, “The New McCarthyism“. (Sample passage: “From The Alien and Sedition Acts, to the silencing of Abolitionists to the McCarthy era of the mid 20th century, throughout history this country has learned to accept the First Amendment.”)

Despite a pretty good run through four years Rutgers, O’Keefe regularly attended student government meetings even after graduating, a former student who attended during O’Keefe’s time at the school tells TPM.

“Most memorable” to her was in spring 2007 when he attended a meeting where members wanted to go into closed session to elect a new member for an open seat in government. She said leaving the room was standard polite/privacy measure for the candidates.

O’Keefe “refused to leave the room and took out a video camera, videotaping our attempts to have him leave the room,” she says. She said he sat there and refused to move and “ultimately campus police had to escort him out of the building.”

During a short stint at UCLA Law School, O’Keefe was also involved in an undercover video operation in which a female student, Lila Rose, went into Planned Parenthood clinics and said she was a 13-year-old girl who needed an abortion.

(Additional reporting by Christina Bellantoni)

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