Support of free speech leads to fierce attack



‘Press’ fire bombed

When disaster strikes, you find out who your friends are. And in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday, Feb. 28, The Riverdale Press learned that it had a lot of friends. Two deranged followers of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini tossed Molotov cocktails through the front window of the newspaper’s Broadway offices, igniting a blaze so hot that it melted the computers on reporters’ desks.

As dawn broke on the smoldering wreckage, hundreds of neighbors, friends, readers and colleagues — along with mayoral candidates Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani — gathered on the sidewalk to offer moral support, coffee, pastries and sandwiches. The venerable Harlem-based Amsterdam News offered its facilities for publishing, local realtors quickly found temporary office space and the city’s daily newspapers put up a $50,000 reward — still unclaimed — for information leading to the arrest of bombers who told a 911 operator that they were acting on the ayatollah’s fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie. Khomeini had threatened death to anyone who sold Mr. Rushdie’s book, Satanic Verses.

A editorial had run in The Press the previous week criticizing national chain bookstores for bowing to the threat and pulling the books from their shelves, and praising a local store, Paperbacks Plus, for steadfastly continuing to sell the book. Publishers Bernard and Richard Stein — staunch believers in the First Amendment — thought the editorial represented uncontroversial “apple pie and motherhood” American values. The bombers didn’t see it that way.

In an act of defiance, every community newspaper in New York State and dozens around the country reprinted The Press editorial. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan had it printed in the Congressional Record. For continuing to publish without missing an issue, the Society of Professional Journalists gave The Press its coveted First Amendment Award.