Zeldin’s Dilemma

It is a dilemma. On one hand, Representative Lee Zeldin would like to meet with his constituents. On the other hand, he does not want to be the focus of confrontations by First District residents who do not agree with his support for President Trump. So what is a congressman to do?

The answer comes from technology. Following Mr. Zeldin’s decision to cancel an April 18 public session in Southampton, he announced this week on Facebook that he would hold a town hall meeting tonight, by telephone. The catch is that participation requires those who want to take part to fill out a form on Mr. Zeldin’s official House of Representatives secure website, furnishing a name, address, phone number, and email. 

On the surface, asking participants to sign up in advance might be a reasonable way to assure an orderly discussion. Looking a little deeper, however, it could be interpreted as a way to limit the audience to those who are more likely to agree with the congressman’s views. 

At worst, the requirement excludes the voices of people who are not comfortable sharing personal details online, as well as those who fear, rightly or wrongly, some sort of unspecified retaliation. 

Nowhere in the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech does it say that Americans who have something to say must identify themselves in order to do so. Whether or not it was the founders’ intent, the United States has a long tradition of political involvement that allows opinions to be heard anonymously. Indeed, federal election rules now allow for so-called dark money contributions, suggesting a degree of comfort at the national level with not knowing who is doing, or paying for, the talking.

That said, it is hard to believe it would be so difficult for Mr. Zeldin to appear at an actual public forum right now, even if that meant being yelled at by angry voters for an hour or so. Maybe he could keep a nice cup of chamomile tea at the ready, taking a soothing sip to keep his cool when the going got tough. Maybe he could gaze at the audience while thinking to himself about the ocean. Then, after he took his lumps, he might let off steam privately. Remember, this is a rough-and-tumble Army veteran who boasts of being in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division. How bad could an audience of detractors be?

Meanwhile, Mr. Zeldin’s staff seems to be taking cues from the White House. Jennifer DiSeinna, his press aide, has been busy with news releases about how busy her boss’s schedule has been. This is at the same time as she characterized those who want to confront to him as “liberal obstructionists” and repeated disputed statements about supposed disruptions by protesters at a January appearance by Mr. Zeldin.

Media access to Mr. Zeldin has been limited as well. Though he appears eager to appear on television news channels, his office has said he has been unavailable for routine phone interviews, instead responding to reporters’ questions only by email.

Mr. Zeldin could show leadership by stepping beyond controlled forums like tonight’s telephone town hall and visits with sympathetic groups to listen directly to people in his district regardless of their political positions. Yes, some in the audience might get loud, some might even call him names, but that is what comes with the job.