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Two RI Public Officials Post Hate Speech – Is There Any Repercussion?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

 

A new controversial Facebook allegedly posted by a Woonsocket public official has come to light, following a post by a member of the Coventry School Committee that community leaders labeled offensive and inciting.

In Woonsocket, former Mayoral candidate Dave Fisher called out on The Coalition a picture he said was shared by Woonsocket zoning official Richard Fagnant on his Facebook page that depicted a Marine holding a gun to President Obama's head.  

This comes after Coventry school committee member Dave Florio posted an anti-Islamic picture depicting a violent Mohammed, calling him a misogynist and pedophile, saying he promoted hatred.

Fagnant denied posting the Marine picture, saying his account had been hacked, but Fisher said he had screengrabs and multiple other examples of Fagnant posts that he said "would hold up in court" and that he deemed "unacceptable."  

"I think the standard has to change when you're a public official," said Fisher.  "I'm on the radio, I make my living on the First Amendment, and I understand the ramifications.  But as an elected official, if you're posting an anti-Islamic post, how can you be impartial?  What if the Muslim community came to the zoning board and said they wanted to build a mosque in Woonsocket? He's posted online calling for reverse jihad."

Fisher was referring to a post where Fagnant posted a picture of Iran's president calling him a towel head.  

"I wasn't being racist, I being funny with the towel," said Fagnant.  "Let me ask you, if the guy has a towel on his head, he's got a towel head, is he not?  I'm trying to become a city council member -- we've got five council members under ethics violations right now.  People don't like that I'm out outspoken.  It's a conspiracy against me to discredit my good name, I've lived a perfect life." 

The Rhode Island ACLU and the National ACLU did not respond to request for comment on Friday.

Social Media, Real World

Jodi Glass, a community organizer with the Rhode Island Commission for Prejudice and Bias, questioned the intent of the Coventry post.  

"Fist of all, I'm not a lawyer.  But even if you don't look at the words, and look at the images, it's really really scary," said Glass.  "If you're talking about freedom of expression, that's another thing, anyone is certainly allowed to do that.  Is it right to do that however? I don't think so."

"What is the intent of doing that?  It's pretty clear it's to make trouble," continued Glass. "Even if you don't read it and you look at the picture it's pretty clear it's not kindness, you're inciting hatred."

"In the realm of elected officials, it's ultimately up to the population to decide what's appropriate and what's not, and if it's an appointee, it's whomever appointed them."

Providence lawyer Chip Muller spoke to recent ruling from the National Labor Relations Board on social media -- and the difference between the private and public sector.

"These are some of the principles the NLRB has come down fairly hard on people who are rude and outrageous towards their employer on social media," said Muller.  "While section 7 of the NLRA  protects employees who engage in grievances or strikes -- they have to right to discuss with fellow employees working conditions,  and even say placing an ad saying the employer is unfair. But there's a line of decency, and an employee can cross that line."

"Remember the Constitution is a much more limited set of protections than people think there are," said Muller.  "The first amendment and its principles really apply to state actions, so an employee working for a private sector, they're not a government agency.  Let's say someone makes a rude comment, but it doesn't rise to the level of sexual harassment, the employer can still fire someone who's rude.  One thing to keep in mind, if it is an elected official doing something, they can really only be recalled by the people."

In the matter of Woonsocket, Fagnant shot back at Fischer regarding his motives.  "I've got a picture of him in blackface," said Fagnant.  "He's got a lot of nerve calling me racist."

Fisher said he wore face paint one Halloween to jump out of the shadows and scare people.

"He can make all of it what he wants.  It retrospect it wasn't the thought, it never even occurred to me," said Fisher.  "I came down on the side of the people who blocked the highway during the Ferguson protests.  There's a heap of people who believe that racism ended in 1964.  It is just as pervasive today as ever. The silence from leaders about what's being said on social media is deafening. Even if you don't have the chutzpah to ask him to step down, at least denounce this type of speech."

 

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