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Charity calls off event with Sarandon

The United Way says her anti-war views made her speaking engagement ''divisive'' and brought complaints.

By LEONORA LaPETER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 27, 2003

[AP photo]
Actor Susan Sarandon flashes a peace sign at the Academy Awards. She was to be keynote speaker at a Tampa event.
The United Way of Tampa Bay canceled an upcoming event featuring Susan Sarandon after getting three dozen complaints from donors and others about the actor's opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Sarandon, the 56-year-old Academy Award winner, was to be the keynote speaker at the April 11 daylong event sponsored by the United Way's women's leadership group and designed to inspire volunteerism in the community. Her brother, Terry Tomalin, outdoors writer at the St. Petersburg Times, asked her to participate in the event six months ago.

But when invitations went out about two weeks ago, the United Way received phone calls, e-mails and letters criticizing Sarandon's selection as a speaker because of her views on the war. The organization decided the event had the potential to become "divisive," said Robin Carson, chairwoman of the United Way of Tampa Bay board of directors.

"The focus of our whole meeting had shifted to whether or not we were creating a political platform for Susan Sarandon," Carson said Wednesday afternoon, after going to see President Bush at MacDill Air Force Base. "That is not our purpose. That's not what we're about. We had a strong mission for that day, and we felt that there was a potential that we would create divisiveness in the community, where our mission was to unite the community."

On Monday, a day after Sarandon flashed the peace sign at the Oscars, her sister-in-law, Kanika Tomalin, was notified that United Way was pulling out of the event.

Marty Petty, executive vice president of Times Publishing Co. and a United Way board member, made the phone call. The St. Petersburg Times Fund, the newspaper's philanthropic arm, was the chief sponsor of the event and was going to pay Sarandon's $20,000 speaker's fee.

Sarandon, active in a number of charities, was to be the featured speaker at the event's $75-a-plate luncheon in Tampa and engage in a conversation with Karen Brown Dunlap, incoming president of the Poynter Institute, which owns the St. Petersburg Times. She was going to answer questions from the audience about the role of women as leaders and contributors. Proceeds of the event were to go to the United Way.

After United Way pulled out, Petty offered to continue the program with just Times sponsorship.

"We were prepared to go forward, but those closest to (Sarandon) felt it would not be appropriate to ask her, and I respect that," Petty said.

Kanika Tomalin, in charge of annual giving at Bayfront Health Foundation, was a member of the 100-member United Way women's leadership group and had joined the steering committee organizing the event to represent her sister-in-law's interests.

Tomalin left the group this week after the United Way canceled the event.

"I chose personally to support the United Way because I believe in its support of the community, but I thought it bowed to who writes the biggest check and that really worries me," Tomalin said. "They represent a lot of people, and I'd like to think it's based on what is right and not based on the will of some person or persons who have the influence of money behind them.

"People have a right to believe and say what they want," Tomalin continued. "For us to see this type of censorship and political pressure to control the agenda and personal opinions of what people think is just disheartening."

Petty of the St. Petersburg Times said she also was disappointed the event was canceled. The St. Petersburg Times Fund paid $25,000 to sponsor the event in addition to Sarandon's fee.

"It's not likely the decision I would have made, but it wasn't mine to make," Petty said. "I respect what they (United Way) do, and you know they're very important to the community."

Sarandon, known for such films as Thelma and Louise and Dead Man Walking, was on vacation in Mexico and could not be reached for comment. Her publicist could also not be reached for comment.

Carson said she did not know whether any donors had threatened to withdraw their contributions if the program continued with Sarandon. She said the decision to cancel had nothing to do with giving in to donors. The United Way of Tampa Bay raises money for charitable agencies in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Louis A. Spiegel III, was one of those who sent United Way a letter criticizing its choice of Sarandon as a speaker. He said he is not a donor and that he spoke as an individual, not on behalf of his company, Itasca Construction Associates Inc., where he is vice president.

"(Sarandon) is welcome to her opinion, and I'm welcome not to listen to it," he said. "I'm welcome to avoid her un-American comments. She has her right to say what she wants to say today and whenever she wants to, but I have the right to do her financial damage by not attending her movies or attending anything associated with her."

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