Rep. Rashida Tlaib talk at Poway school canceled after district withdraws permission

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) outside the Capitol on Jan. 4, the opening day of the 116th Congress.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) outside the Capitol on Jan. 4, the opening day of the 116th Congress.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

A planned talk by Rep. Rashida Tlaib at the Westview High School theater has been canceled after the Poway Unified School District revoked its approval of the event, saying that the date of the talk is the only day the space can be cleaned before the holiday break.

Notice of the cancellation came late Thursday morning, a day after the San Diego County district had sent an email to the Center for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) confirming use of the theater on Dec. 21 for the two-hour event titled Defending Our Communities, a Conversation with Rep. Rashida Tlaib. CAIR representatives had spoken with school officials about the event before it was originally approved and had applied via the district’s web portal.

On Wednesday, a letter was sent by a conservative legal fund to the Poway Unified superintendent and school board president suggesting that Tlaib’s presence and the event would be an insult to the Jewish community, which it said is still struggling to get over a shooting at the nearby Chabad of Poway synagogue last April that left one person dead and three wounded.


Daniel Piedra, executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, said he was not told what prompted the district to cancel the event, but believes concerns expressed by his organization about “Tlaib’s anti-Israel rhetoric” played a role. The Defense Fund in 2017 represented plaintiffs suing to prohibit CAIR from teaching about Islam in the San Diego Unified School District’s anti-bullying program.

The fund was founded in 2012 by Rancho Santa Fe lawyer Charles LiMandri, who defended the Mount Soledad Cross in San Diego when challenged by the ACLU.

Tlaib, 43, a Democrat, was elected to represent Michigan’s 13th Congressional District last year. She is the first Palestinian American woman in Congress and, with Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.

She has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration and has sharply criticized the Israeli government and called for an end to U.S. aid to Israel.

Tlaib is a member of the informal group of female Democrats in the House known as the Squad, along with Omar, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Dustin Craun, executive director of the local chapter of CAIR, said Thursday afternoon he doesn’t believe in coincidences and thinks it’s highly possible the district made up an excuse to avoid controversy.

“I was told there was a conflict and the school needed it,” Craun said. “I said, ‘Well, that’s convenient.’ ”


“Now the congresswoman wants to speak to the superintendent, so obviously it’s pretty upsetting,” Craun said. Tlaib clearly has the right under the 1st Amendment to speak, he added.

The $65-a-person event will still be held that weekend, Craun said, when a suitable new venue can be found. Craun and UC San Diego political science professor Tom Wong are listed as participants in the conversation. Wong, a Democrat, is one of the candidates running to replace Rep. Susan Davis in the 53rd Congressional District.

A spokeswoman for the district said Thursday that the letter protesting Tlaib’s visit had nothing to do with the permit being denied. In fact, the spokeswoman, Christine Paik, said, Supt. Marian Kim-Phelps hasn’t even seen the letter.

“This time of year is crazy,” Paik said. “All of the holiday concerts and events are happening at our facilities. At that theater in particular, there is something scheduled every day through [Dec. 20],” she said.

She said Dec. 21 was the first and only time when scheduled maintenance of the building could be done before employees went home for the winter break.

“Sometimes facilities requests are approved without consulting the maintenance schedule, and that’s what happened in this case,” Paik said.

Tlaib could not be reached for comment.

Jones writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.