Township Manager Matt Cavallo said at Monday night’s Town Council meeting that Verona had closed an unofficial page that Facebook had created for the Verona Pool after anti-Muslim comments were posted to the page.
Cavallo explained the page came to the town’s attention after complaints about comments on it were made to the Verona Police Department. He said that the township contacted Facebook and gained control of the page, which it closed. A business or organization can claim an unofficial check-in page by following instructions on Facebook that prove their relationship to the official business or organization.
MyVeronaNJ.com obtained a copy of a Verona Police report dated June 18 under an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request. It states that, on June 11, a Facebook user on the unofficial pool page asked “any Muslims there”. The screen name of that user was Celeste Carlo; her real name is given in the police report as Celeste DeMaio. The report includes screenshots of derogatory comments posted to the page by Carlo/DeMaio and others.
Lt. Paul Watkins, the officer who filed the report, noted that while the initial comments on the Facebook page were “negative”, they “seem to be protected speech.” The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans the right to express an opinion without government restraint. The Supreme Court has, over the years, ruled that some forms of speech are not protected if they involve obscenity or were intended to incite violence or inflict injury.
In the police report’s screenshots, several posters can be seen objecting to Carlo/DeMaio’s comments. Jess McGrath admonished her for “bigoted comments.” “You should be embarrassed,” he added. Carlo/DeMaio responded, “Sorry not embarrassed.” McGrath’s wife Christine was one of the two people who filed police reports on the page.
Carlo/DeMaio also commented on plans to close Personnette Street. Friday, June 15 was Eid al-Fitr, the celebration for the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and the Verona Islamic Center, located at the corner of Personette and Grove Avenue, was going to have outside activities in the morning. Carlo/DeMaio complained that that would be an inconvenience to residents and schools before adding “Maybe something unfortunate will happen.”
In his report, Lt. Watkins called that comment “distasteful” but said that it did not rise to the level of a bias incident. “The comment, as distasteful as it may be, was made on June 11th and although before the block party on the 15th, was not brought to the attention of this department until today, the 18th. Therefore, there is no immediacy of this ‘threat’ and instead I view it as wishing ill on another. Again, this is in poor taste and may not be agreed upon by many, but it is still protected speech.”
“The Verona Police Department in no way condones this language,” Watkins added, “and an effort will be made to monitor social media so that incidents such as these may be known and measures may be taken if appropriate.”
On June 19, Acting Capt. Christopher Kiernan reported that he had called on DeMaio at her home. He said that she told him that she had taken down her posts after seeing that people were taking them “out of context.” According to the police report, DeMaio told Kiernan that her “something unfortunate” comment was directed at John MacEvoy. The developer, who also owns businesses in Verona, had sold the property to the Islamic Center after buying it from Congregation Beth Ahm when the Town Council was forced to back out of its contract. (On the unofficial Pool page a commenter had posted erroneously that the sale had been done by Councilman Jack McEvoy, who is not related to the developer MacEvoy and spells his name differently.)
Kiernan’s report also noted that DeMaio “expressed regret and apologized” during his visit. It said that she also visited the Mosque’s block party and had had “pleasant conversations” with its congregation.
Cavallo told the Council that the township would be merging a previously official page for the Verona Recreation Department into the official township Facebook page for Verona, which is here. Verona also maintains official pages on Twitter and Instagram. Cavallo also said that Verona will begin archiving the pages so that it can meet its OPRA requirements and that the Council will be asked to vote on a township social media policy.
In other Council business, the Council voted unanimously to repeal the garbage ordinance it approved in May rather than seek a potentially costly public vote on the measure. A valid petition challenging the ordinance was filed with the township in June. The Council also said that it had resolved some of the problems with posting Council meeting videos to VTV on cable television, but that it was still looking to improve the audio and picture quality of those videos.