Late last week, with no prior notification, lawyers for the controversial evangelist John Hagee had a series of videos concerning the pastor removed from YouTube. The clips spanned from the contentious to the mundane; some included footage lifted from sermons Hagee had already made public, others involved documentaries made by filmmakers inside Hagee's conventions. All told more than 120 videos were taken down in the abrupt sweep.
The timing was, perhaps, more peculiar than the move itself. Clips that had been online for well over a year were now being subjected to "third-party" copyright infringement claims. And while Hagee had not been in the mainstream press since he and Sen. John McCain ended their official relationship a month prior, Hagee's Christians United for Israel annual summit is just days away, and at least one prominent McCain backer (Sen. Joseph Lieberman) is set to be in attendance.
Two individuals who have documented Hagee and posted clips on some of his more noteworthy sermons (including those interpreted as anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-gay -- Hagee, Wilson noted, once claimed that the Anti-Christ will be German, gay, a "blasphemer" and "partly Jewish - as was Adolf Hitler, as was Karl Marx") believe that nefarious motives were behind the YouTube shakedown.
"Obviously Hagee's minions orchestrated this move to suppress bad publicity ahead of their July summit," said Max Blumenthal, a freelance writer and videographer whose documentary on last year's Christians United for Israel summit was viewed by hundreds of thousands. "This is a response to the McCain debacle and concern over bad publicity for Lieberman's appearance," he charged.
"My guess is that videos [that] Hagee's people think are the most damaging are the ones they targeted," said Bruce Wilson, who first highlighted Hagee's claim that the Holocaust was God's means of hastening the apocalypse by driving the Jews to Palestine. "Clearly, the conference at the end of July and the fact that Lieberman is going to be there also played a role. That's my guess. They certainly don't want people to see the more controversial stuff."
Public relations officials for John Hagee Ministries denied foul play. Noting that several mainstream video clips -- including one from Hagee's speech at AIPAC -- were removed from YouTube as well, they also dismissed the notion that lawyers to the pastor were suppressing news or undermining free speech.
"Any material that was produced for John Hagee Ministries or Christian United for Israel was deemed to be a copyright infringement was taken down," said Juda Engelmayer, a spokesman from the firm 5WPR. "Anything that showed John Hagee giving a sermon - because he films and markets those as well - were taken down because they were considered copyright infringements."
While Engelmayer insisted that legal action to remove the YouTube videos had been in the works for a while, he acknowledged that he didn't "have an answer" as to why it was being pursued now. Many Hagee-related videos, it should be noted, remain on YouTube, and both Wilson and Blumenthal have moved some of their work to Vimeo, another video sharing service.
And yet, as Blumenthal and Wilson note, claims that this was merely an effort to combat copyright infringement contain several, glaring holes. For starters, Hagee had complained but never sought legal recourse for past publication of his sermons. Moreover, Blumenthal's work, while filmed at a Christian United for Israel event, was his own, not Hagee's. "There was no copyrighted material because it was me reporting on a public event," he said.
Even Engelmayer admitted that he didn't know how Blumenthal's particular work "fit the criteria" that the lawyers used. "But if he puts it up [on YouTube] again, I'm almost positive it won't be challenged."
There is little Blumenthal, Wilson, People for the American Way or others whose videos were swiped can do in the meantime. A first amendment lawyer with knowledge of copyright law noted that the pastor's lawyers can have YouTube take down relevant videos regardless of how little Hagee footage they include or how long they have been online. Indeed, YouTube's policy is to remove any video that a third-party claims is a copyright infringement, even if it seems to clearly be "fair use."
After a period of time -- likely, more than two weeks -- users can repost their clips and that third-party must then prove that the video violates copyright law. By then, however, Hagee's Christian's United for Israel, Washington-Israel Summit will likely have commenced.