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Suffolk Closeup: 1st Amendment violated in Suffolk County


It was an unprecedented incident in Suffolk County history when two journalists were ejected from a political rally. It happened last month at a public event for Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) whose district includes Shelter Island.

As Pat Biancaniello, editor of Smithtown Matters, one of the journalists kicked out of the rally, wrote in an editorial: “Last night I was ejected from the Lee Zeldin kick-off rally, which I was invited to, without cause. Yes, I was invited to attend the rally by the Zeldin campaign and was credentialed by the Zeldin campaign. Upon arrival I was told to go anywhere I wanted to take photos, again by the Zeldin campaign. I stood in the same spot, with my credentials plainly in sight, for roughly an hour and a half before, out of the blue, I was told to leave without an explanation.”

Ms. Biancaniello continued: “I was forced to climb over a rope to get to the path leading to a door (one woman sneered and said ‘bye bye’ as I walked past). Once out the door and in a backyard area, I was mocked by a group of people. A man upset that I was taking photos smacked my camera and I was told by security to leave the Elks Club premises. All the while I was wearing the press badge supplied by the Zeldin campaign and telling everyone I was an invited press person.”

As David Ambro, managing editor of The Smithtown News, wrote: “Without provocation, without just cause, and without a word of explanation, the campaign staff of Congressman Lee Zeldin threw me and a fellow journalist out of his campaign kickoff at the Elks Club on Edgewood Avenue in Smithtown Thursday, June 28. It was the first time in my 40-year career as a journalist that I have ever been thrown out of anything. I didn’t like it.”

“I saw a tweet that said we had been thrown out of a ‘white supremacist fest,’” Mr. Ambro went on, “a reference, I suppose, to one of the Zeldin-rally speakers, Sebastian Gorka, who some Democrats charge is a ‘Nazi sympathizer.’ I’ve covered a white supremacist rally before — a cross-burning during a brief Suffolk uprising of the KKK in 1998 — and that’s not what this was. I will say, though, that being thrown out was arbitrary and capricious, overbearing and intimidating.”

Mr. Ambro declared: “It put us in a precarious situation, singled out in a crowd that was revved up to a fevered pitch by the rhetoric of the speakers and at a time when the president they idolize has declared the media to be ‘an enemy of the people.’ And, in the aftermath, the response by Representative Zeldin and his campaign was in bad taste.”

The Press Club of Long Island’s (PCLI) board of directors issued a statement last week on what happened: “When reached by the Press Club, Zeldin said in an email: ‘As Americans, we cherish our Constitution, freedoms and liberties, and that includes our sacred First Amendment protecting freedom of the press.’”

“The press,” said PCLI, one of the largest chapters of the national Society of Professional Journalists, “serves an important role to keep Americans informed of facts that allow us to form our own independent judgement on matters before our community, nation and world. The congressman, who was reportedly not present when the journalists were removed, said Biancaniello and Ambro were confused with protesters, and he invited them back to his events.”

PCLI continued: “While we appreciate Zeldin’s apology and strong statement on the press, we do not believe Biancaniello and Ambro should have been removed from the event in the first place.

We see this most recent incident as part of a larger pattern of mistreatment of the press. The Trump administration set the stage in February 2017 when then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer excluded The New York Times, CNN, Politico, The Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed from a press briefing.

Around the same time, President Trump began calling the press the enemy of the people. It was a phrase often used in the past by communist dictators to refer to dissidents, or political opponents. Mr. Trump has repeatedly employed the term to speak of hard-working journalists simply doing their jobs. As a nation, we must afford journalists the protections that we have from the time of our founding, thus allowing them to reveal important truths.

I am proud the PCLI reacted quickly and strongly to what happened, and proud of the two Suffolk journalists who protested the violation of their rights.

I founded the PCLI in 1974. I was sitting at my desk at the daily Long Island Press reading a story about a reporter jailed for not divulging a source. My recollection was that this occurred in Maryland. I arranged for a gathering of Long Island journalists to form an organization to challenge this kind of thing. At the meeting I was elected president of the club.

Through the years the PCLI has taken on various government officials on Long Island for not complying with the Freedom of Information Law and similar behavior. But journalists getting kicked out of a political rally here? This is new and intolerable.

The assault on the media that is underway today in the U.S., led by Donald Trump, is an attack on the U.S. democratic process. It is not acceptable in our country.