There is a controversy brewing at Tulane Law School where I began my academic career. The law school was the scene of a confrontation between controversial conservative filmmaker and activist James O’Keefe and former U.S. Attorney James Letten whose office handled the prosecution of O’Keefe for his entry in the office of Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu under false pretenses. Letten is now an Assistant Dean at the law school. Letten never explained why he recused himself from the case but O’Keefe suggests that he was responsible for leaking confidential information to the media. In the video below posted and edited by O’Keefe, Letten confronted O’Keefe and accuses him of “terrorizing” his wife and violating state and federal law by appearing at the law school. Letten calls O’Keefe and his crew a bunch of “hobbits” and berates the filmmaker. While I am no fan of O’Keefe, I am afraid that I do not see the basis for the alleged crimes by O’Keefe or the basis for his being held by law enforcement outside of the law school. The school has banned O’Keefe from the campus after the confrontation with Letten.
Letten confronts the man he calls a “nasty little cowardly spud” outside of the law school. He says that O’Keefe has committed federal and state crimes and was particularly upset with the appearance of O’Keefe at his home in an attempt to give Letten his book. I do not blame him. However, Letten says that such an attempt constitutes some form of crime of “harassing a former U.S. Attorney.” Absent some restraining order or threat, I fail to see how such a visit would constitute a federal crime. Regardless of the provocation however Letten response is not befitting an academic. While filming can be limited on private property, the claim of state and federal violations was never explained by Tulane in its public statement. The University is only claiming that O’Keefe committed “the provocation of these unannounced and uninvited visits.” There has been no mention of criminal conduct by the University in any of its subsequent statements on either the state or federal level.
My greater concern is the holding of O’Keefe and the conduct of Letten. We have previously discussed such tirades from faculty (here and here) Letten unleashes a tirade of abuse on the crew and throw a book handed to him back at Letten. (O’Keefe calls this assault, but once again I fail to that that crime any more than Letten. It is a technical offensive touching but it is pretty trivial to constitute a crime). Letten is unwilling to discuss any issue and instead tells the crew “Listen to me,. Listen to me, hobbits, okay? Listen to me. Listen to me. Pay attention to me. Listen to me. You went to my house. You terrorized my wife. You are violating federal law. You are violating state law. You’re trespassing. You’re a nasty little cowardly spud. All of you. You’re hobbits. You are less than I could ever tell you. You are scum.”
The part of the video that I find interesting is where O’Keefe begins to leave and he is stopped by security and what appears to be a New Orleans police officer. Letten and the officer say that O’Keefe is trespassing. However, that does not appear to be the case. The public is allowed to use public sidewalks and access on such campuses. I certainly fail to see the basis for the officer telling O’Keefe that he is in custody. He is entitled to express his opinion just as Letten is entitled to express his opinion to O’Keefe that “You spend your life as a snail. You do weird little political things, you’re a horses a–. Stay away from my family, stay away from me, stay away from this institution. If you want to be a political, you know, extremist nut job, that’s fine, don’t break the law.”
I certainly understand Letten’s frustration and anger, particularly when someone goes to your home. However, he is now part of an academic not a prosecutorial enterprise. Universities are traditionally zones of protected speech and the actions taken against O’Keefe in preventing him to leave, if only briefly. The officer says that he is indeed in custody and that the University is private property. The university can exclude people from its facilities, but it is not clear what precisely was the grounds for the detaining of O’Keefe.
The University is standing with Letten in the following statement: “This exchange, arising from an issue related to his previous position as U.S. attorney, followed visits to Jim Letten’s home and campus office by James O’Keefe and his film crew that were intimidating and harassing to both his wife and staff. Despite the provocation of these unannounced and uninvited visits, Mr. Letten regrets losing his temper in addressing the impropriety of Mr. O’Keefe’s conduct.”
The film of the home visit does not appear to have any threats. It is the visit itself that appears to be the basis for the intimidating conduct. However, people are allowed to go to homes absent threats or a court order. There is no mention of a specific threat or threatening act other than the appearance at the home or the campus.
Here is the video: