Lawyer: Board Member’s “Hateful” Comments Not Free Speech Issue

Geoff Ginter, Pine Beach, speaks about how Board Of Education member Dan Leonard should step down. (Photo by Chris Lundy)

  TOMS RIVER – People are asking for a board of education member to resign due to Facebook posts that they called “hateful.” While the attorney for the board denounced the posts, he said this is not a First Amendment issue.

  The issue revolves around Daniel Leonard, the Beachwood representative on the Toms River Board of Education. He had been called out by an anti-bigotry group for Facebook posts they said were against people of the Muslim faith.

  Leonard has defended himself, stating that his comments were against Sharia Law, and not Muslims.

  A protest took place before the regular Board of Education meeting, held at High School North. It was attended by just short of 100 people. There were also some who came out in support of him.

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  Leonard has declined to run for re-election, since his term is up at the end of this year. That was not enough for protestors.

  “In the meantime, he’s making decisions that will affect all students in the district,” said one of the organizers of the event. Kelley Morris, representing NJ21 United, is a middle school teacher in Gloucester Township. She said since Leonard’s posts have spoken out against Muslims, women, and other groups, he shouldn’t represent a district. “He’s the exact opposite” of the lessons that teachers try to instill in their students.

  “It’s wrong, it’s hateful, and it has no place in Toms River and it definitely has no place in our schools,” she said.

  Zachary Dougherty, a recent Toms River High School North graduate, spoke about Leonard’s mistreatment of board members in addition to social media posts. “He is one thing and one thing only – a bully.”

  “Your actions have consequences,” he said. It’s not about the First Amendment. It’s about representing everyone when you are in a position of authority.

  Geoff Ginter, a Pine Beach resident who often appears at regional public sessions, agreed, stating that Leonard likely posted offensive material in the past, but that now he is a public official, they are more in the public view.

  He urged people not to protest out of vengeance, but from a place of love for their fellow people.

Zachary Dougherty, Toms River, speaks about how Board Of Education member Dan Leonard should step down. (Photo by Chris Lundy)

Security At Meeting

  Plain-clothed but armed security, as well as township police officers, were in attendance. They also searched bags and used a metal detecting wand on people entering the building. During one shouting match, security was called, but the situation defused itself before they intervened.

  During the meeting, residents got an opportunity to voice their opinion.

  Lilah Saber, a graduate of Toms River schools, told stories about how she was treated as an Arab child in the district. “In seventh grade, a student told the teacher I had a bomb in my clarinet case,” she said. In other issues, she had teachers either not stand up to defend her or say negative things to her about people of Middle Eastern descent.

  “They are not a new problem,” she said.

  Kim Kearney, who taught in the district, said that Leonard might see himself as a David against Goliath, being the protesters. But the protesters are the David here.

  Lisa Gertner, the co-founder of Reaching Across Faith Traditions, implored him to learn about Islam instead of “spreading lies.”

  A private citizen can say whatever they want, she said. It’s when he’s a public official that these comments become an issue.

  For the most part, Board Attorney Stephen Leone spoke on behalf of the board. Occasionally, the superintendent or a board member would take issue when a member of the public attacked the district. Leonard was silent during the meeting, laughing once during a shouting match, and left when it ended without talking to anyone. On his personal Facebook, he had made fun of the protestors, in one case using a picture taken at the protest.

  Leone said that there have been statements by the board president, superintendent, and himself that those comments were not condoned.

  “This is not a First Amendment rights issue,” the board attorney said. “This is an issue of an elected board member. There is a code of ethics. He’s held to a higher standard.”

  While there is free speech, there are still things you can not do, he explained. You can’t yell “fire” in a theater, for example.

  “He’s an admirable man. He served his country well,” he said.

  When someone asked if the board filed a complaint against him with the state, Leone said that the board can’t legally do that. Individual members can, but it is a fruitless effort. In the past, complaints have taken a year or so to get heard, which would be months after he is no longer in office. He said he has spoken to the commissioner of education if it is possible to expedite a complaint, and was told it is not possible.

A military portrait of Dan Leonard, a former U.S. Paratrooper at 82nd Airborne Division and current Toms River Board of Education member. (Photo courtesy Facebook)
A military portrait of Dan Leonard, a former U.S. Paratrooper at 82nd Airborne Division and current Toms River Board of Education member. (Photo courtesy Facebook)

Leonard’s Supporters

  Although the majority of people spoke against his Facebook’s comments, a few people came out in support of him.

  Rich Denicola served seven years overseas with Leonard, where Leonard oversaw equal opportunity in the squad. During his tenure, he did not have any cases brought against him or the soldiers in his care.

  One day, his vehicle was stoned by Afghan children. The next day, he gave the children candy and food, Denicola said. In another situation, he rescued an Afghan person from a fire.

  “There is always a different perspective,” he said. “He calls out hate when he sees it.”

  Another supporter, Joe Ferrandino, said that he hadn’t seen what Leonard posted on Facebook, but still stood up for his right to post it.

  “There is no such thing in America as hate speech,” he said, calling political correctness censorship.

The Facebook Posts

  The Facebook posts that Leonard shared were memes created by other people.

  One was a repost from a conservative podcaster disparaging Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota. When reposting, Leonard commented “Terrorist…100%”

  Another was a repost of a Fox News post about Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan. Leonard commented “My life would be complete if she/they die.”

  A third was a repost of a meme showing a Barbie doll with a bruise and a hijab, referring to it as “Sharia Barbie.”

  These statements have reached national news cycles.

  At the time these posts were first brought to light, Leonard stated that he is against Sharia Law, not Muslims. The comments regarding Congresswoman Tlaib were about her calling for a hunger strike to shut down Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This came from a Fox News clip that was cut short, in which she did not actually urge hunger strikes; she only mentioned that other people were doing it. Leonard’s point was that if she wants to starve herself, then fine. But he did not call for violence against her.

  After an initial news report about the issue was made public, Leonard addressed the issues on Facebook, stating that he served in the Middle East doing his part protecting Muslims from radicalized Islamic fundamentalists. Leonard retired from the Army National Guard as a Master Sergeant.

  He was not available to comment for this story.