A conservative group that has been criticized for publishing deceptive hidden-camera footage has set its sights on the United Educators of San Francisco.
Project Veritas, the brainchild of right-wing political activist James O’Keefe, published a video Tuesday purporting to show a teacher admit to clotheslining a student and talk about hitting children.
Project Veritas sent two undercover employees, one posing as a teacher and the other as the friend of a teacher who hit a student, to San Francisco to expose what it called a “culture of secrecy and cover up” in teachers unions across the nation.
The duo used a hidden camera to capture what appears to be union representative Antonio Mankini, who has not been a classroom teacher for several years, saying he “clotheslined a kid in class one time.”
“I was pretending I was pointing at the kids and the kids saw the kid went down,” Mankini appears to say in the video. “And that one still bothered me. That one, yeah, because I crossed the line. I know I made it look like an accident and all the witnesses would have said, ‘No, he ran into my arm.’ I didn’t, like, reach over to knock him down, you know. He ran into me.”
Andrew Seaman, chairman of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, said he has no trust in the “weird” video that the group released.
“If it’s cut up or choppy, there’s probably something else in there,” Seaman said. “It’s one of those things where it may look damning, but you don’t know what else happened during that interview.”
Nonetheless, the teachers union placed Mankini on leave, pending an investigation into the video, while also casting doubt on the accuracy of the comments, according to a statement from UESF.
“O’Keefe and Project Veritas are known for breaking laws, lying, and wrongdoing in pursuit of their political agenda,” the statement reads. “Nevertheless, the deceptive video clips that O’Keefe has posted are troubling and we are committed to a swift, full, and fair investigation so that all appropriate actions can be taken.”
San Francisco Unified School District spokesperson Gentle Blythe called the alleged comments “very disturbing.”
“We have grave concerns about the behavior Mr. Mankini references and encourage any former students, staff or family members who may have experienced mistreatment from Mr. Mankini or any other district employee to report their concerns immediately,” Blythe said in an email.
Blythe said the district investigates every complaint of wrongdoing and puts “student safety first.”
“Some of the information from the video is definitely disturbing, we’re going to be investigating the comments,” said Board of Education President Shamann Walton. “It’s appalling and disturbing when teachers put their hands on students. That’s something that we never want to see happen.”
Project Veritas, which refers to its stings as undercover reporting, has come under fire in the past for heavily editing video footage and baiting its subjects, most notably for publishing misleading footage of a 2009 interview with officials from the nonprofit ACORN.
The latest footage appears to have been recorded without Mankini’s knowledge, which could land the group in legal trouble.
David Greene, senior staff attorney and Civil Liberties Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that everyone in a private conversation in California has to give consent to be recorded.
“California is an all-party consent state, so that means you cannot record or listen to a confidential communication without the consent of all parties in the communication,” Greene said. “The question is whether this was a confidential conversation.”
The endeavor also raises ethical questions for a group purporting to consist of journalists.
“The SPJ actually does not say journalists can never do undercover reporting,” Seaman said. “But we make it in our code of ethics our last resort.”
Seaman said if Project Veritas calls its work journalism, then “it’s at least not good journalism.”