Education

Wichita teacher union president loses defamation lawsuit over hidden-camera videos

The president of Wichita’s teacher union has lost his defamation lawsuit against the makers of hidden-camera videos that captured him admitting to threatening a student with physical violence.

A federal judge in Florida ruled against Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita, and in favor of Project Veritas in connection to videos that were secretly recorded at a Florida hotel bar and a Panera restaurant in Kansas. Project Veritas describes its work as non-profit journalism that investigates and exposes corruption.

In the video, Wentz describes an episode with a former student in which he asked the student to stay after class, locked the door and pulled the shades down.

“You want to kick my (expletive)? You really think I’m a (expletive)?” Wentz says in the video. “Son, go for it. I’ll give you the first shot. But be sure to finish what you start because if you don’t, I guarantee you, I will kick your (expletive) (expletive).”

Wentz previously called the video a lie and sued Project Veritas for defamation and wiretapping claims.

“When you have people like this that take your words and twist them and edit videos and accuse you of onerous things … this type of vitriol needs to be addressed,” he previously said. “This is not journalism.”

Wentz’s lawsuit against Project Veritas included two claims of defamation, four claims of wiretapping and one claim for an injunction.

Federal Judge G. Kendall Sharp ruled against Wentz on Tuesday, granting summary judgment to Project Veritas.

To prove defamation involving a media outlet, Wentz would have had to prove that they published a provably false statement, or a collection of literally true statements that creates a false impression.

The Project Veritas video included edited footage from conversations with Wentz at the Florida bar and the Kansas restaurant, as well as narration and a hip hop song. But the judge ruled that Wentz failed to prove the editing “juxtaposed or omitted his true statements to imply defamatory content.”

“Although the Wentz video includes select footage from the Bar Conversation and Panera Conversation and other edited material, the edits do not improperly and illegally alter the meaning of Wentz’s words or associate him with an unrelated topic or conduct,” the judge wrote.

In court testimony, Wentz said he made the statements shown in the video. He also said that he made similar statements to other students “more than once” and lied about it.

“Wentz admitted that he lied to (a Project Veritas employee) when he told (the employee in a video) that he never communicated to a student that he would ‘kick his (expletive) (expletive),’” the judge wrote.

“(H)e understood that neither the School District nor the United Teachers of Wichita would condone his conduct,” the judge wrote. “Wentz admitted to understanding that his employer ... does not tolerate threatening a student with physical violence.”

Federal and Kansas wiretapping laws generally allow a conversation to be recorded secretly as long as one of the people involved has given prior consent. But even if one person consents, it could be illegal if the conversation was recorded “for the purpose of committing any criminal or tortious act.”

Wentz had claimed the recordings were made to commit defamation, but the court rejected that claim and ruled against him on the Kansas and federal wiretapping counts. The judge also rejected Wentz’s claim of wiretapping under Florida law.

Under Florida wiretapping law, recording a conversation can be illegal in certain circumstances, including when one of the people involved has a reasonable expectation of privacy. The judge determined that talking at a hotel bar, where other patrons and a bartender are present during portions of the conversation, is not considered private communication.

The judge rejected Wentz’s claim for a permanent injunction against Project Veritas because the conversations were not illegally recorded and the video was not defamatory.

“We believe that the federal judge vindicated our journalism as bulletproof,” Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe said.

“Anybody who comes after us for rock solid journalism is going to pay for it (through attorney’s fees),” he said. “Let this be a message for people who are going to hurt us through frivolous lawsuits.”

The non-profit spent about $350,000 defending itself and its employees, O’Keefe said. The judgment indicates that attorney’s fees and costs may be awarded after a court motion.

Wentz did not return a request for comment on the judgment.

A Wichita schools spokesperson did not return a request for comment on the judgment and whether Wentz faced any disciplinary action in connection to the Project Veritas video. The district previously said it would investigate the hidden-camera video.

Wentz is listed as a roving teacher at a salary of just over $60,000, according to The Eagle’s records. As part of a requirement for union officers to keep their district benefits, Wentz spends half his time at UTW headquarters and half serving as a substitute, or “roving teacher,” in Wichita classrooms.

Prior to his election as union president, he taught psychology and world history for 25 years at Southeast High School. United Teachers of Wichita represents about 4,100 teachers, librarians and other certified employees.

Wentz appeared in videos posted to the teacher union’s Facebook page on Monday and Tuesday. In the videos, he encourage teachers to record any one-on-one conversations with school or district administrators.

“From this point going forth, any conversation that you have with an administrator, someone from HR, whatever that may be — if there is not a third party witnessing that conversation . . . You get your cell phone out, and you record that conversation,” Wentz says in the video.

“It’s legal, and it’s the right thing to do.”

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