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Racist, threatening online remarks disrupt historic Southold Town Board meeting

The first meeting of the new Southold Town Board was marred Tuesday by an online audience member typing racial slurs, crude remarks and a death threat into a chat window of the town’s official Zoom webinar. It’s the second virtual town meeting in as many weeks to be disrupted by racist remarks.

The Tuesday morning work session marked the beginning of the tenures of Town Board members Greg Doroski and Brian Mealy, the first Black man elected to a Southold Town office.

A Zoom participant using the name “Janet C” posted racial slurs and crude remarks in the chat throughout the first half of the morning meeting. After a few minutes without acknowledgement, the user posted a racially charged death threat. The posts went undeleted for the duration of the roughly hour-long meeting as board members, all of whom were present at Town Hall, continued to conduct the business of the town.

“This is not free speech. This is hate speech.”

Sonia Spar, Co-Chair of Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force

Supervisor Scott Russell said that normally town meetings are set up so only panelists can see messages and suggested the meeting may have been hacked. 

“We’re looking at everything to see if it was an internal mistake, if we were hacked, we’re looking at every option,” Mr. Russell said of the comments, which could be read by any guest viewing the meeting live on Zoom. “We are redoing all of the internal procedures and everything to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Anybody who wants to speak with the town can “go the traditional route,” he added. 

A similar issue was reported to Southold Town Police following a Dec. 20 virtual meeting of the Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force, a committee made up of a diverse group of community members. Following that meeting, members Sonia Spar, Valerie Shelby and Christopher North submitted a letter to town police chief Martin Flatley detailing the incident.

They said three unknown individuals yelled racial slurs during the meeting, also hosted via Zoom. Once muted, the three continued to type slurs into the chat and the meeting was eventually stopped. 

Ms. Spar, who is co-chair of the task force along with Ms. Shelby, said the task force normally leaves meetings open to facilitate communication with the community. In an interview, she called the incident a “coordinated attack.” 

“This is not free speech,” she said. “This is hate speech and I’m willing to speak out against it.”

She added that the Internet doesn’t offer as much anonymity as many people think. IP addresses can be tracked. 

Both Mr. Russell and Ms. Spar pointed out that such incidents, known as “zoom-bombing,” are not unique to Southold. 

“We’re not the only town that has them,” Mr. Russell said. “Other towns do as well. I’ve been on plenty of conference calls with other supervisors and other officials where pornography and everything pops up.”

Ms. Spar added that “the internet is a very good tool, but it also carries some unintended consequences.”

“Some people sometimes just use it to spew their hatred,” she said. 

Southold Town Board member Brian Mealy said at a ceremonial swearing in event Tuesday that he was honored to be the first black man elected to town office in Southold. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Reached by telephone after a long day of meetings Tuesday, Mr. Mealy, who attended the meeting in person, said he was unaware of the remarks. He said it’s a “shame” that somebody used technology in “such a destructive way.”

“The town has tried to do a good effort to try to prevent those things,” he said. “Coming from a school board background, I know we tried to prevent those things. And unfortunately, those things come through. But I know the people of Southold, that’s not what we believe, I know in my own heart I don’t believe those things, so I just reject those things in the strongest terms possible.”

He added that his takeaway from his involvement in town government so far is that “Southold is a hopeful place.”

“Every comment I’ve heard, you know, in person and people wishing us luck, whether we were Democrat or Republican, whatever our cultural background is, we want to just move Southold forward,” he said.

After taking a ceremonial public oath of office later Tuesday, Mr. Mealy spoke of the pride he felt in being the town’s first Black elected official.

“I really am indebted for the breaking of barriers,” he said. “I just wanted to say to all of us Southold that we can break any barrier if we stick together. I’m so appreciative of the honor.”

Mr. Russell said the “small-minded bigot’s views are not consistent with the public, who found Brian to be an excellent choice for Town Board.” 

“We’re certainly lucky we have a very broad-minded community and we shouldn’t let bigots have any sway in public forums,” the supervisor added. 

The experience demonstrated the importance of fighting hate speech, Ms. Spar said. 

“The more that we denounce [hate speech], we feel that those who are emboldened to spew their hatred or racism will not be accepted by the community,” she added. “We all need to assume our own responsibility to advocate and promote respectful and civil conversations for the well being of our community.”