Town of Potsdam board joins condemnation of Massena county legislator's anti-Muslim post
Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 10:05 am

BY CRAIG FREILICH
North Country This Week

POTSDAM – The controversy over a county legislator’s social media post, defined by many as hate speech, continues to rebound around the county.

The Potsdam Town Council has taken up the issue of a post by County Legislator Rita Curran aimed at Muslims by calling for her resignation.

Two other county legislators speaking at the meeting were concerned that by taking no action against her leads to denigration of the entire legislature in the eyes of the public.

On a unanimous vote, Supervisor Ann Carvill and councilors Judy Rich, Rose Rivezzi, Sarah Lister and Toni Kennedy, all Democrats, approved a resolution Tuesday night’s regular meeting to “call on the St. Lawrence County Legislator for District 15 to resign from her position” as a legislator, and asking the county board to read the Potsdam resolution at their next meeting.

During the discussion Councilor Kennedy cited Holocaust survivor, author and activist Ellie Wiesel, saying “Silence never helps the tormented, only the tormentor.”

“I think it is very important to call out people when they are like this and, ‘Oh, we’re all against hate.’” said Councilor Judy Rich. “I think this is important. Now if we can’t legally make her resign, then we can’t, but we can call her out by name. I think she should be exposed. She has exposed herself to this.”

The controversy swirling around Legislator Curran, a Republican from Massena, began on April 25 when she posted to her Facebook page an image from a page called Empire State Conservatives. It shows an airplane flying into the burning World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, accompanied by the text “Every time a Muslim stand [sic] up in Congress and tells us they are going to change the Constitution, impeach our president, or vote for socialism, remember you swore you would never forget. They swore they would destroy us from within.” She deleted it the next day after the St. Lawrence County Democrats released a statement condemning the post and calling for her to resign.

The debate centered, on the one hand, on the idea that she was condemning all Muslims whether they were involved in the terror plot or not, and, on the other hand, that the American ideal of free speech gives her an absolute right to make such posts and protects her from any action against her.

The county board considered a resolution, introduced by Legislator David Haggard of Potsdam, to ask for Curran’s resignation on May 6, but it failed 10-5, mostly along party lines but with Republican John Burke voting for her resignation against the Republican majority, and Democrats Rick Perkins of the 7th District and Daniel Fay of the 9th District opposed to her resignation.

The debate at the Tuesday town board meeting focused on whether she should be asked again to resign or if the county board should censure her. They decided to call for her resignation.

Another resolution the town board approved says more generally said that the board “condemns hate speech and calls upon all elected officials to reject and condemn hate speech and hate crimes.”

“Whereas, some elected officials defend such hate-filled rhetoric claiming First Amendment rights and protections, apparently believing they have the right to denigrate various disadvantaged or underprivileged groups...,” the resolution said.

This also passed unanimously.

Two county legislators also spoke at the town meeting in support of their resolutions.

David Haggard of District 10 in Potsdam, a Democrat, and Republican John Burke of District 12, which includes Norfolk and the northern portion of Town of Potsdam including Norwood, said they felt ashamed that the county board did not ask for Curran’s resignation or censure her.

Haggard said mere censure would have an “air of forgiveness. No one on the legislature has the right to forgive this speech We were not the specific victims of this speech.”

“My hope is that more than one town or one village will actually call for resignation,” he said.

He said it was “shameful” that the only Muslim house of worship in the county has no sign in front of it, and “that people have to pray in anonymity and without any notification where they are.”

The county board members also said neither asking for her resignation or criticizing her through censure ultimately had no meaningful consequences for her, but felt nonetheless that a formal statement by politicians against hate speech was required.

“What she did doesn’t just define who she is. It defines who the board is,” said Legislator Burke. He said instead of “complacency over this type of speech, we needed to clearly set the tone that not only do we not accept that type of speech, we don’t want to work with someone who is racist,” he said.

“We come to you having failed. So I’m delighted to hear the dialogue of individuals who are genuinely concerned about the character of the community and certainly the character of your own board."