Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio ini June, advocating for business reopening on the East End. Photo: Denise Civiletti

An event in Riverhead planned by state lawmakers and advertised as an “informational meeting about your constitutional rights regarding vaccinations and vaccine mandates” was canceled after social media posts condemned the event for hosting representatives of an anti-vaccine pseudoscience group.

Originally scheduled for Saturday afternoon, the event, sponsored by Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio and Assemblyman Doug Smith, was set to host Mary Holland, the president and counsel for Children’s Health Defense. The organization was founded by lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr. —  the son of the former U.S. Attorney General and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy — who peddles discredited and unsubstantiated claims that vaccines cause autism. 

After the event went “viral,” Giglio and Smith said in a joint statement they “do not want to sponsor or promote any event that cannot be held with civil discourse.” The event, Giglio said, could turn adversarial.

“We couldn’t sponsor or be part of an event that would turn it into something that was more of a riot or a protest,” Giglio said in a call with RiverheadLOCAL. The event was to take place at the Sea Star Ballroom connected to the Long Island Aquarium and Hyatt Hotel in downtown Riverhead.

Kennedy is one of the “Disinformation Dozen”, a group of creators who are responsible for 65% of digital anti-coronavirus vaccine content, according to a 2021 report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Kennedy’s YouTube channel was removed last month over concerns about misinformation. Children’s Health Defense’s content is littered with other false and unsubstantiated claims about the causes of autism in children, like sonograms and the higher radio frequencies of 5G wireless mobile phone technology. Several of Kennedy’s and Children Health Defense’s claims have been labeled as misleading or inaccurate by the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, Health Feedback.

Giglio said the event was not discussed with Kennedy. “I made it perfectly clear, when we were setting up the event with the attorneys who we asked to be there, that it wasn’t going to be about vaccine injury, it was going to be specifically about mandatory vaccinations and constitutional rights,” Giglio said.

Thousands of healthcare workers were terminated or put on unpaid leave on Sept. 28 when the vaccine mandate took effect. Peconic Bay Medical Center lost 2% of it’s staff, officials said.

Although legal opinions may vary, the consensus among current court precedent and legal experts is that vaccine mandates — in the sense that they penalize the unvaccinated person and don’t actually force them to be inoculated — are legal. Nothing in the Constitution discusses vaccinations specifically, however, the constitutionality of mandates were explored in the 1905 Supreme Court case Jacobson v. Massachusetts, where it was argued that the city of Cambridge Massachusetts violated Jacobson’s 14th amendment right of personal liberty without due process by issuing him a fine for not being vaccinated against smallpox.

The court ruled in Massachusetts’ favor and determined that the vaccination program had the right to fine Jacobson because it had a “real [and] substantial relation to the protection of the public health and safety.” The decision has been upheld and further expanded in subsequent cases, according to a Congressional Research Service report on the subject from April, before the Pfizer vaccine got full FDA approval. 

The implications of this decision were further expanded to arguments against religious exemptions, which is the current subject of a lawsuit against New York state’s vaccine mandate. Some workers argue that their faith prohibits them from obtaining the vaccine because research was conducted using cell lines from aborted fetuses decades ago, and they do not believe in abortion. According to the CRS report, courts have held that “the right to free exercise of religion . . . [is] subordinated to society’s interest in protecting against the spread of disease.”

“I’m not against the grain. I’m about letting people know what their constitutional rights are without opinion on either side,” said Giglio, who is not a lawyer and said organized the event to give her constituents a legal perspective she did not have.

“I’ve been vaccinated and I encourage everybody to get vaccinated, and I’m glad that we have brought so many vaccinations here to the district,” Giglio said. “So I think everybody should be vaccinated, but the people that don’t want to be vaccinated are the loudest voices that I’m hearing in my assembly office and we wanted to address that.”

This is not the first time Giglio has sponsored policies contradictory to the opinion of public health experts. She advocated against the implementation of masks in schools this fall by schools in her district before the state Department of Health issued a mandate. 

Giglio has also been outspoken against vaccine mandates for college students in New York State. 

The event also planned to host Kevin Barry and James Mermigis, attorneys from the Mermigis law group who in 2019 unsuccessfully attempted to challenge a repeal of religious exemptions for vaccines in Connecticut. 

Barry is currently offering services to help request religious exemptions for coronavirus vaccines, according to posts on Facebook. Mermigis has filed suits against New York state for restrictions imposed on businesses to limit the spread of coronavirus in the middle of the pandemic and against the 2019 removal of religious exemptions for school children vaccine mandates. 

The event would have also included Rita Palma, who is not a legal expert but a “vaccine choice” and “religious exemption” advocate who runs a website to provide sources on how to apply for religious exemptions. She is also the Vice President of the New York chapter of Children’s Health Defense.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.