Sunday, March 14, 2010

Revealed! O'Keefe and Burns' Gulag Controversy Was a Hoax!

I knew that people from outside campus came to Washington University and spray painted hammers and sickles on the grounds as part of a demonstration. I knew that one member of the group from off campus, John Burns, had later accused the university of "fraud" for asking the demonstrators to pay for the cleanup of the graffiti. I knew that James O'Keefe had secretly videotaped school employees then edited the video to try to make it look like the employees had an agenda against right-wing ideology. But even knowing all of this, I previously had said that I thought the school overreacted by shutting down the display. Well, I'd like to apologize to the university for thinking this, because I've recently found out that the entire gulag display was a farce from start to finish.

John Burns, whose sketchy past has been detailed extensively here and here, claimed that the school shut down the gulag because they found it offensive. From the beginning, Wash U insisted that the proper paperwork was not filled out. I believed the school, but assumed that whatever was not filled out was a relatively minor detail. However, thanks to the testimony of a Young American for Liberty (YAL was the student group that put the display on with Burns assistance), it now is apparent that their request was fundamentally inaccurate: in fact, YAL didn't even mention that they would be building a structure on campus!

We first see this in a post on the Show Me Institute's blog Show Me Daily, where the author repeats the inaccurate claim that the display was shut down because it was "offensive." YAL member Caitlin Hartsell responds in the comments:
Actually, I think Gateway Pundit and John made too big a deal of it. It actually was shut down because they got a permit to pass out pamphlets and instead built a structure… slightly different.
Michael M. offered the following support for Caitlin's claims:
I am a Wash U alum and was president of one of the conservative groups on campus. In that capacity I was involved in organizing several relatively controversial events, ones considerably more offensive to the administration’s sensibilities than this one. They were never shut down and never hampered by the school. You are correct to point out that the University’s stated policies are vague: they SHOULD be, because (as any small gov’t person knows) institutions are unable to foresee all possible scenarios and consequences. Instead, the school’s practical policy is “Work with us in advance and there will be no problems.” I was always upfront with the school about what we were planning to do, and while they didn’t give me any pats on the back, they didn’t get in my way either. This all comes down to YAL having been deceptive. You guys need to stop whining and start making an effort to communicate a thoughtful, non-socialist message.
Caitlin then offered a couple more thoughts in the comments:
As a member of the club who interviewed both the head of Wash U YAL and the administrator, I feel I can comment on this better than either of you.

This is not an events service regulation. It’s an architectural one. It’s stupid, but it exists. Every club that builds something HAS to have a go-ahead from the administration. (And lots of clubs do build and DO get this permission. YAL didn’t.) The gulag was up for 3 hours. It made its point. Wash U is private property and the Wash U. administration can (and does) do what it wants with it… no group would have been allowed to make a building like this without getting explicit permission.But overreacting to a legitimate concern makes you (and your point) sound illegitimate.
First off, as a brand-new club, Wash U. YAL is NOT yet recognized by the university. In this first semester limbo, the University does not have to afford the group space EVER. Thus, any use of meeting rooms and reservations on campus for events is from the goodness of the administrations’ hearts. Allowing YAL to pamphlet on campus and reserve the space was generous. Had the group been honest about their intentions, perhaps the gulag would have been allowed to stay up longer (but it made its point, it didn’t need to stay up longer!) So referencing existing rules is meaningless.

The gulag project was offensive and attention-grabbing… but was that not its purpose? To shock people and force people to consider its message? When one has an unpopular message, one has to be very careful to follow the rules and be respectful (like trying to work with the administration.) Otherwise, the administration will find rules to bring it down.

And the safety issue actually is a legitimate one; had someone been hurt, Wash U could have been liable. By reproving the project and forcing you (you because who else is going to do it?) to take it down, they send a message to future groups and YAL that this isn’t the way to go about things. Obviously, safety wasn’t the key issue in this project… but it could be in future ones and allowing YAL to subvert the process without rebuke just opens a can of worms for the school. Plus, Wash. U. is private property and they can set whatever rules they’d like for it; the rules are vague on purpose to force student groups to be transparent and protect the university.

There is a right way and a wrong way to go about these things. It’s fine if YAL wants to subvert that process, but to get indignant that it is taken down (and considered offensive, one of its main objectives) is stupid and only takes away from any point it tried to make. The University generously turned a blind eye from 11 till 2:30 and YAL made its point. That point is obscured though in any of your hoopla of “victimization.”
On her own blog Lady Liberty, Hartsell tells basically the same story:
When reserving the space, YAL told the university they were distributing pamphlets, but omitted the part about power tools and building a structure.
She also clarified her role in the YAL:
I am a member of Wash. U.’s YAL, but was not involved in the planning process for the gulag. I was at the event in my capacity as an intern for the Show-Me Institute, along with Josh Smith and Chrissy.
This is a pretty compelling argument that the administration was justified in their actions. As Hartsell suggests, if the group is going to deliberately flout the rules in filling out the forms, they should not scream "oppression!" when the rules are enforced.

Furthermore, the setup of the event is made far more suspicious by the fact that James O'Keefe and Joseph Basel, two of the people arrested in New Orleans under suspicion of tampering with Senator Landrieu's phones, came to campus that day with video recorders used to secretly record campus employees. Wouldn't it be a remarkable coincidence that O'Keefe and Basel, who both live far away from St. Louis, just happened to fly into town for that day, bring their secret recording devices, and then selectively edit the video while alleging oppression against the university for enforcing it's rules after YAL did not explain anything about what their event would look like? In fact, it would be a coincidence that is too ridiculous to believe. Clearly, O'Keefe, Burns, and Basel came to campus with a pre-arranged plan to accuse the university of "silencing free speech."

So, to recap the situation:
1. First, people from off-campus came to Wash U and vandalized the campus by spray-painting hammers and sickles to promote their display.
2. Even though they only filled out paperwork to pass out literature, they in fact built a wooden structure that was a liability risk for the university, even according to their own members.
3. Two alums of the right-wing Leadership Institute, James O'Keefe and Joseph Basel, secretly videotaped their conversations with university employees and then selectively edited the video to make it look like the admin had an agenda (fortunately, even after the editing, the case wasn't very convincing).
4. After the university enforced it's rules, John Burns (but as far as I know, none of the actual students from Wash U) went around the internet and local media falsely claiming that the University shut down the display because it was "offensive."
5. Then, when the university asked YAL to pay for the cleanup of the graffiti, John Burns accused the university of fraud.
6. Burns then asked for donations "to help the students," when in fact the donations were directed to the Campus Gulag group he created.
A pretty ridiculous hoax all the way around. So naturally, the St. Louis Tea Party decided to make John Burns the leader of their anti-public transit campaign.


  1. A wholehearted thank you for your calm, objective voice. You are providing an incredibly vital public service. So glad I was introduced to your blog via the RFT.

  2. To be fair, Adam, the school was harsh in that they weren't entirely clear about what forms were necessary to fill out. YAL broke the rules, but didn't realize they were breaking them. John Burns overreacted, but the school was not completely upfront about what they wanted. (On the form, they had a sentence asking student groups to contact them for any clarification, etc. but that was about it.) So, YAL don't follow procedure, per se, but it may not be evident to a new group leader that a discussion with the administrators was needed. The administration has been unfair to conservative and libertarian groups in the past (promising to pay for events beforehand, then creating new rules post-facto and refusing to pay for them after they occur) so it's not like the groups in general have had a good experience with the WashU administration.

  3. At the end of the day, clowns like James O'Keefe and Joseph Basel still achieve their goals, regardless of any repercussions such these these, because the media (including us) still give these guys attention.

    In other news:
    - Wash U asked a political group supported by local student organization to dismantle a temporary structure because of a lacking permit.
    - Two men in their early 20s where detained at Senator's Landrieu's office for posing as telephone repair men.

    Now onto today's sports coverage...

  4. Ben, I don't think the problem is that they get too much attention: i think the problem is the kind of uncritical attention that was paid to them by the mainstream media. Basically, the msm swallowed their story hook. line, and sinker without critically evaluating the claims. I think we would have been better off if the Left had responded much earlier asking questions about the veracity of the videos.

  5. Adam, although O'Keefe's and Basel's stunts could have been readily exposed as nothing more than stunts with a handful of attention span and some healthy resistance to spectacle, the MSM tend to demonstrate neither.

    While I acknowledge the cynicism of my perspective, I still believe just showing willingness to debate the veracity of absurd claims like that ACORN advised pimps how to evade taxes, or that Sen. Landrieu intentionally disabled the phones in her office, means the clowns (aka trolls) are successfully steering the debate.

    For precisely reasons like these, Internet culture promotes the mantra "Don't feed the trolls," to hold space for meaningful discourse. Trolls feed off attention, and even simple debate validates their trolling.

    Thanks for the response.