More than 350 supporters attended U.S. Congressman Lee Zeldin’s (R-Shirley) campaign kickoff event at the Smithtown Elks Club last week, but full media coverage of the guest speakers may be hard to come by.
Two members of the local press were kicked out of Zeldin’s June 28 event after an attendee in their vicinity vocally decried one of his controversial featured speakers, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
“I asked, ‘Why do I have to leave?’ There was no reason given,”said Pat Biancaniello, editor of the site Smithtown Matters and one of the journalists removed from the event.
Chris Boyle, communications director for Zeldin’s 2018 campaign for Congress, said that a protester made an outburst that created a disturbance in the middle of the rally, causing the congressman’s security team to react.
“[I]n an effort to escort all those involved out of a crowded and loud rally, three people, including the protester, were identified as being involved in the outburst and were escorted out,” Boyle said in a statement.
“I asked, ‘Why do I have to leave?’ There was no reason given.”
– Pat Biancaniello
Setauket resident Susan Perretti, the woman identified as having created the disturbance at the event, said she had RSVP’d she would be attending with two friends in hopes of getting an opportunity to directly address her congressman unfiltered, saying town hall-style events tend to only allow for prescreened questions. When two friends were denied entry, she proceeded to head inside.
Perretti, a member of the North Country Peace Group advocacy organization, said once inside she had a hard time keeping quiet while hearing comments made by several former advisers to President Donald Trump (R) and what she called “hate” speech from attendees.
“Then when Sean Spicer came out, I just started saying, ‘It’s enough — it’s enough,’” she said.
When Zeldin’s security team approached her, Perretti said she was asked to leave or she would be arrested. Upon asking why, Perretti said she was informed that she was trespassing before being escorted off the premises peacefully.
Biancaniello said she and Dave Ambro, editor of The Smithtown News, were standing in close proximity to Perretti when the commotion began. The editor of The Smithtown News took a photo of Perretti’s outburst, according to those in attendance, before he was the first journalist to be escorted out.
“Then when Sean Spicer came out, I just started saying, ‘It’s enough — it’s enough.'”
— Susan Perretti
Ambro declined to comment on the event.
State Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) said he was close enough to see Zeldin’s security team approach both Perretti and the reporters, but he could not hear the conversation over the rally and it was unclear what was unfolding.
“There was a list of people who were known troublemakers [the security team] was on the lookout for who were known to be trying to get in,” Fitzpatrick said, “Two were discovered trying to find their way inside to disrupt the event.”
However, the assemblyman said the reporters kicked out were not associated with the protester.
“I did not witness any problem whatsoever by David or Pat,” he said. “From what I could see, there was no reason for them to be asked to be removed. They were not part of the disruption. When the commotion started, they were obviously paying attention to it as reporters would.”
Biancaniello said she was the second journalist to be forced out by Zeldin’s security team. She alleged she identified herself as a member of the press, was openly wearing a media badge provided by Zeldin’s team and that her camera was hit by a guard when she attempted to take a photo.
“When asked to leave, the two other people, later identified as the editor of the longtime anti-Zeldin Smithtown News and a left leaning local blogger, did not display those credentials they were provided …”
– Chris Boyle
“I think it was people were intentionally singled out,” the Smithtown Matters editor said.
Zeldin’s staff said the press failed to appropriately identify themselves to the security team.
“When asked to leave, the two other people, later identified as the editor of the longtime anti-Zeldin Smithtown News and a left leaning local blogger, did not display those credentials they were provided almost as if they wanted to get thrown out to write about it afterwards,” Zeldin’s communications director said. “Following the outburst, they did not contact any members of our team until hours after the event ended.”
Biancaniello said she had called and emailed Zeldin’s office immediately following the event without response. After making her story public in a Facebook post at approximately 8:30 p.m., Biancaniello said she was informed several local residents contacted Zeldin’s office and she eventually received an emailed reply asking why she never properly identified herself as being with the press despite alleging she was wearing her press badge.
The Smithtown Matters editor said she has grave concerns about the precedent the event may set for media coverage of the upcoming race for the 1st Congressional District.
“What does it say when only the people given admission again were the people who you think will cover it positively?” she said. “That’s not where the world needs to be today. We have enough people coming after journalists and the integrity of the media in general.”