First Amendment Cherry-Pick

Long Island Anti-Muslim Free Speech Rally Forsakes Press Freedom

Ali Gharib on getting rejected from an anti-Muslim "free speech" rally because organizers didn't like the Daily Beast.

David Karp / AP Photo

When one synagogue in the affluent New York suburb of Great Neck, just outside Queens on Long Island, revoked its invitation to Pamela Geller, another was quick to step up and give the anti-Muslim activist a soap box. Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky, head of the Great Neck chapter of the Orthodox Jewish group Chabad, where Geller spoke on Sunday, extended the invitation because “everyone should have the option to speak, as long as they do not speak hatred." Likewise, Geller called attempts to block her talk a "war on free speech." But if these self-proclaimed defenders of the Constitution were making this day about freedom of speech, they apparently forgot about the next clause in the first amendment: that which ensures the freedom of the press.

When I arrived to the Great Neck Chabad house at 9 o'clock in the morning, an hour before the talk, attendees were already streaming in past the plastic tables set up for security. Three enormous flags rose in front of the Chabad house: the Israeli flag flew highest, followed by the American, and lastly a big, yellow Tea Party flag. As I moved to the table at the right, for registering as press, a tall, balding man with a dark suit and sunglasses asked me who I was writing for. "The Daily Beast," I replied. The man, Jeffrey Weisenfeld, didn't miss a beat before waving his hand dismissively and blurting out, "Not interested." I told him the Daily Beast was a reputable national news site, and he responded that he was familiar with the website, and unmoved by my appeal. "Usually, the press controls us," he told me. "Today, we control the press." Wiesenfeld added: "We only want the outlets here that we want here," and urged me to read about the event in the local paper Newsday like everyone else.

Geller's talk at Chabad was slated to be closely moderated to keep it from venturing off the topics of freedom of speech and terrorism, and preventing any of the sort of hate speech Geisinsky said had no place there. But Geller's anti-Muslim record have gotten her labeled at a hate-monger by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others, including, notably, many American Jewish groups. The outrages are far too frequent to catalogue, but her work has repeatedly gotten her in hot water for intolerant statements about Muslims in general, not just the purported extremist targets of her ire.

For his part, Wiesenfeld helped organize the Chabad event for Geller, according to those staffing the tables in the driveway in Great Neck. A sometime New York political operative and Great Neck resident, he doesn't shy away from high profile spats, especially those involving his right-wing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2011, he created a stir when attempted to stop renown playwright Tony Kushner from receiving an honorary degree from the City University of New York, where Wiesenfeld was a trustee, because of some criticisms of Israeli policy. In a follow up interview with the New York Times, he intimated that Palestinians—all Palestinians—were "not human."

In Great Neck, after Wiesenfeld handed down his decree, security escorted me to the perimeter of the property—before escorting me to retrieve my car. I re-parked on a public street and stood at the gateway where, at about 9:30 in the morning, Geller arrived in a Cadillac Escalade with a police escort. A public information officer from the Nassau County police department, which was working perimeter security at the event, asked for my information and made another plea on my behalf. The officer returned apologetically.

Some passing attendees told me they were eager just to see what the controversy was about. Others said they were devotees of Geller because she'd put her finger on what was wrong with America these days. I asked one if it was Islam that was wrong with America. "I don't know what else it could be," he told me. Another, Jan Fenster, of Queens, NY, told me she'd come to support Geller's freedom of speech. "I agree with her right to express herself," she said, which should be enjoyed by everyone as long as they're not "preaching something against our government or someone's race, religion or gender." I told her many viewed Geller as against the Muslim religion. "That's their opinion," Fenster said. I told her I'd been asked to leave solely based on the publication I write for. "That's your opinion."