The National Press Club, like all clubs, has rules. Here’s National Press Club House Rule No. 4:
Boisterous and unseemly conduct or language in or about the Club premises or in connection with any Club-sponsored event is prohibited. Any member so offending shall be liable for immediate suspension by any Member of the board or the manager or his designee pending investigation by the board, which shall render final action.
If you’re the National Press Club, House Rule No. 4 is a headache. In an organization that exists to facilitate dialogue and discovery, after all, invoking House Rule No. 4 could easily come off as censorship. So if you’re going to go after someone under the world-famous “boisterous and unseemly” clause, you’ve got to have a case.
Did Sam Husseini hand the National Press Club such a case?
Husseini says no. A member of the club and a staffer with the Institute for Public Accuracy, a group that promotes progressive organizations in the mainstream media, Husseini attended a Monday news conference at the press club, where Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal took questions.
In a camera-filled conference room, Husseini posed the first question. Or question-speech:
There’s been a lot of talk about the legitimacy of the Syrian regime, I want to know what legitimacy your regime has, sir. You come before us, representative of one of the most autocratic, misogynistic regimes on the face of the earth. Human Rights Watch and other reports of torture detention of activist, you squelched the democratic uprising in Bahrain, you tried to overturn the democratic uprising in Egypt, and indeed you continue to oppress your own people. What legitimacy does your regime have — other than billions of dollars and weapons?
Faisal took umbrage at the question and snarked about whether Husseini would like to step up to the podium and give his speech there. National Press Club Executive Director William McCarren got involved, pushing Husseini to simply pose his question. That way, other folks in the room would get a chance to pose questions, whether or not they were prefaced by tendentious monologues.
Faisal eventually responded, arguing that the United States spent well in excess of a century before passing the 19th Amendment (suffrage for women), yet no one questioned whether it was a legitimate country before then.
McCarren and Husseini later clashed in the hallway. The back-and-forth between the two men, says McCarren, disrupted the proceedings at the Faisal press conference. “I said, ‘Let’s talk about this, but can you move down the hallway so that the room does not have to hear all of this?’ ” recalls McCarren. “He wouldn’t move.”
Husseini gives a different version of events: The only thing he’s guilty of is asking “a tough question of a very powerful autocrat,” he insists. As for the hallway incident, he challenges McCarren’s version: “He was acting as if I was being loud at this point and was disturbing the news conference going on inside the room, and he was literally trying to physically remove me from the Club. But I wasn’t shouting or anything, he was probably louder than me.”
The press club has suspended Husseini, penalty that appears to include a meeting. From the letter to Husseini:
This matter will be reviewed by the Club’s Ethics Committee. A meeting will be scheduled prior to the end of your two week suspension to discuss your conduct and the violation. The Chairperson of the Ethics Committee will contact you to schedule the meeting.
In the meantime, you should not come to the Club or use its facilities for any reason.
What we have here is a little friction along a classic journalism fault line. The press club doesn’t consider Husseini a journalist — merely a “communicator” in the club’s membership lexicon. That’s because Husseini, according to McCarren, doesn’t make the ”bulk of his money from journalism.”
Says McCarren: “Journalists have a few checks on them. If you came in with the purpose of disturbing the event, [if] you have no editor, it’s a different equation than a journalist who’s trying to be objective, trying to get a good question asked. I’d rather the hard questions be asked by journalists than non-journalists.”
I’d rather see a rabble-rouser or two get thrown into the mix, the better to inject a little drama into things. As long as people disclose their association when they pose questions and get smacked back when they speechify, the public’s right to know is unlikely to suffer. And if the National Press Club sees fit to suspend someone during one of Washington’s slowest weeks of the year, then suspend away.