Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
A Dec. 21 appearance by Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan was being promoted by the San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A day after the Council on American-Islamic Relations won approval to host a talk by controversial Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan at a Torrey Ranch-area school, permission was revoked Thursday due to a schedule conflict.

The cancellation had nothing to do with a 420-word protest letter sent by the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, said a spokeswoman for the Poway Unified School District, the venue landlord.

“The superintendent didn’t even know about the letter,” said Christine Paik of the Poway district.

Approval of the Tlaib event Dec. 21 at Westview High School was made in error, she said.

Someone in the district facilities department wasn’t aware that the school’s 418-seat Performing Arts Center was due for scheduled maintenance that Saturday after a packed week of student events.

“The request was submitted Thursday, Dec. 5, and approved yesterday,” Paik said Thursday in a phone interview. “But … even if it gets approved, the event can get bumped. And it does happen, if there’s a scheduling conflict.”

She said CAIR didn’t follow district guidelines in advertising the event, with social media posts not mentioning that the talk could be canceled.

“If they had read the policy carefully, the fliers didn’t meet the guidelines either,” she said. The theater rents for $184 an hour, and tickets to “A Conversation with Rep. Rashida Tlaib” were still being advertised Friday for $50 a person (down from $65 a day earlier).

The 2-year-old policy on use of school facilities says: “Where conflicting dates have resulted, or where need of the property for public school purposes has subsequently arisen, the requesting school site shall confer with the appropriate Associate Superintendent to gain approval to ‘bump’ the scheduled user.

“Upon approval, the school site shall contact and assist the scheduled user in finding suitable facilities at the school, if possible. There are no reservation guarantees and organizations may be bumped minutes before their event is scheduled.”

Tlaib’s appearance was opposed by the Rancho Santa Fe-based defense fund because it considers the first-term congresswoman, a Palestinian-American and critic of Israel, anti-Semitic.

Daniel Piedra, executive director of the defense fund, said he wrote Poway schools Superintendent Marian Kim Phelps after a former client in the group’s San Diego Unified/Islamophobia lawsuit informed him of a Twitter post by 53rd Congressional District candidate Tom Wong, the UCSD professor helping moderate the Tlaib event.

Flier for canceled talk by Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
Flier for canceled talk by Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

“We’re not trying to block the speaker,” Piedra said. “Generally speaking, CAIR and Rep. Tlaib have a First Amendment right to say what they want in constitutionally permissible [forums]. But as President Trump said yesterday, ‘The vile, hate-filled poison of anti-Semitism must be condemned and confronted everywhere and anywhere it appears.’”

He said the fund condemns CAIR and Tlaib, and his letter, however mild, was “our confrontation.”

“But we certainly don’t object to them exercising their First Amendment rights. Nor would we condone any attempt to censor, disrupt or otherwise interfere in them exercising those rights,” said Piedra, who was informed Thursday morning of the event cancellation.

Professor Wong, writing a little after 5 p.m. Thursday, said he had just heard the news.

“I believe the event will be moved to another location,” he said, adding: “I firmly support our collective freedom of speech, and so I welcome a conversation with Rep. Rashida Tlaib. My grandmother-in-law, who is still with us, survived the Holocaust when she fled Austria during WWII, and so my own family knows the horrors of anti-Semitism intimately.”

Wong, director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UCSD, also said: “This makes having this conversation especially important. Not just to address issues related to Islamophobia, but to highlight the intersectionality of our collective struggles.”

How does Piedra respond to critics who consider his group anti-Islam?

“We don’t respond,” he said. “‘Critics’ like CAIR have an established protocol of responding to persons or groups who object to their agenda by decrying them as ‘anti-Islam’ or ‘Islamophobic.’ Doing so is a key (and successful) component of their media strategy, because it helps them maintain the moral high ground (it’s easy to smear adversaries as homophobes, racists, Islamophobes — end of discussion).”

He said that tactic stifles reasonable debate about their background and activities, “and it appeals to today’s media configuration, where things can only be framed in simple black and white to keep up with the speed of the news cycle.”

“CAIR’s public activists know all this, and they receive intensive training on how to execute it successfully,” Piedra said via email. “Basically, the ‘Islamophobe’ salvo is their standard knee-jerk response to any criticism.”

Piedra — a 34-year-old candidate for a seat on the San Diego Community College District board — apologized for his “long-winded answer.”

“Personally I find their strategies impressive, and I have tremendous respect for CAIR’s success at hoodwinking the public,” he said.

CAIR and Tlaib’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Story updated at 9:22 am. Dec. 13, 2019