Pinellas County Republicans spark controversy by ‘dis-inviting’ terrorism expert

Dr. Jonathan Matusitz
Dr. Jonathan Matusitz

The Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee has sparked controversy with its decision to invite an internationally known terrorism expert to speak at Monday night’s meeting.

Dr. Jonathan Matusitz, a Belgium native and associate professor at the University of Central Florida’s Nicholson School of Communication, was scheduled to give a 45-minute speech he called, “The Islamic Threat to America,” at the start of the June executive committee meeting.

By Sunday, following “internal pressure from fellow PCREC board members,” Matusitz was reportedly “dis-invited,” according to the blog, WatchdogWire Florida.

As controversial as that move may be to some, the real contention may be found in what lead to the snub.

Matusitz’s appearance before the Pinellas GOP was first reported on the local progressive blog, SaintPetersBlog, which the Tampa Bay Times wrote about Thursday. In picking up on the story, Times staff writer Anna Phillips described the speech as “anti-Islam.”

According to the Times, Pinellas County Chairman Michael Guju said opposition to Matusitz was “much ado about nothing.”

For the last six months, the party has been holding educational forums an hour before its regular meetings to give speakers who “are not sanctioned by the party,” a space to share their views, he said.

“I looked up the guy, I vetted him, and he has a point of view that perhaps someone may not appreciate. I understand that. That’s education,” Guju said. “The Republican Party is a very broad party.”

Saying that “several party leaders are complaining that the invitation to Matusitz is an ‘olive branch’ to the far-right elements in the local party,” SaintPetersBlog quoted one committee member as saying:

“This isn’t even from the Tea Party folks; this isn’t even the anti-fluoride crowd. The people who listen to this guy are from the crazy wing of the party. And they’re the reason why we lost the last election.”

The blog post also included comments from Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala’s son, Chris Latvala, who resorted to Facebook on Thursday to say that he was “disappointed” in the decision to invite Matusitz.

The younger Latvala added that “a local county Republican meeting should not be an avenue to bash a religion that is practiced by many in Pinellas County, including fellow Republicans.”

In a response to the dust-up, Matusitz sent a letter to the editor of SaintPetersBlog, noting that this is the “first time that some Republicans have openly expressed their objection to my presentation on Islam.” He added that “as a UCF faculty, I never intend to be controversial; rather, I try to be factual and 100% correct.”

Having attended several of his seminars, I can attest that Matusitz refuses to be hampered by the bounds of political correctness in his quest to educate others of the dangers of terrorism. Much of what he shares comes from a textbook he authored and teaches at UCF, “Terrorism and Communication: A Critical Introduction.”

I found his presentation to be enlightening and heard nothing offensive. Unlike many politicians, the professor usually concludes his seminars with a generous question-and-answer session to address any and all concerns. And for the record, UCF is no bastion of conservatism.

So is this just a continuation of political correctness that may one day lead to American soldiers being beheaded in our streets, as we saw occur last month in Britain? Or is it the moderate wing of the GOP at play, believing the only way to win minority support is to pander to these voters? Or, even more troubling, is it an indication of the influence on local politics by Hassan Shibly, the active executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations?

Perhaps. But I suspect something else could be at play.

The Times article was sure to note that “Matusitz has been making the rounds within Florida’s tea party chapters.” While speaking at a Tiger Bay luncheon in 2011, Sen. Jack Latvala said:

“The main reason I agreed to come today is because I knew this is one place I could come and give a speech and not have to deal with any tea party people. …. Can’t go to a Republican club and say that anymore.”

Is it possible that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and that in the eyes of some in Pinellas County — home of Charlie Crist — the greater sin may be Matusitz’s affiliation with tea party groups?

Tom Tillison

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