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‘Disgusting’ hate speech targeting LGBTQ, Jewish people disrupts NC town board meeting

With discussions about an Airbnb and improvements to McKee Road among the items on the short agenda for Monday night’s Board of Commissioners meeting in Matthews, it came as a surprise when talk turned to pedophilia and antisemitism.

For nearly 20 minutes during the public comment section of the meeting, several individuals via Zoom took turns espousing hate speech targeting gay and transgender people, as well as Jewish people and faith, a recording of the meeting shows.

One of the commentators accused gay and transgender people of being pedophiles, while another homed in on criticizing diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Each of those commentators took aim at Jewish people and faith. One denied the Holocaust occurred, a common conspiracy theory among antisemitic people, while others accused Jewish people of being responsible for issues with immigration and being child molesters.

They pointed to the Jewish religious practice of circumcising a baby, known as a bris, as proof of pedophilia.

One of the commentators said she found “myself standing with the anti-Semites — people most of you would refer to as Neo-Nazis” on the topic.

“It’s a really hard time to live in, when you are pressed between choosing Nazis or pedophiles,” she said. “I sincerely hope you choose the sides of the Nazis.”

A couple of the speakers referenced a website filled with anti-Semitic, homophobic, transphobic, and other hateful material that included what appeared to be a logo that resembles a Nazi flag.

Disagreement between commissioners

As those public comments continued, members of the audience and board were visibly upset. Some audience members, who were visible in a recording of the meeting, left early. One commissioner also left for some time.

According to the town’s website, commentators are limited to five minutes per comment when discussing anything not related to a public hearing.

Only the first of the Zoom commentators, who called himself Dr. William Norman, went over that limit. He was cut off early.

After that person was cut off, Commissioner Mark Tofano asked if the sound was purposefully turned down on the commentator.

Commissioner Renee Garner said she asked that the volume be turned down.

It led to a brief argument about freedom of speech between Tofano and Garner.

“I refuse to sit down on this…although you may not agree with him and we might find it repulsive, you have no right to turn the volume down on this man,” Tofano said.

It did not matter whether or not she agreed with the speaker, Garner said, the language he was using was “offensive on every level.”

“The language he was using was offensive,” she said. “It was anti-Semitic, it was homophobic, it was transphobic. But most of all, it was disgusting.”

But that shouldn’t matter, Tofano said.

“You’re not the one who gets to decide who can speak and who can’t speak,” he said. “And if we turn down the volume on a speaker in this hall ever again, so help me.”

As the commentators continued, Garner got up and left the meeting. She later returned shortly before the board went on a short recess.

Officials react to comments

When public comments wrapped up, Commissioner Ken McCool expressed his frustration.

“Some of these comments tonight have been sickening and disgusting, infuriating,” McCool said on the video. “This does not represent what the town of Matthews is and believes, and I’m so sorry anyone had to hear that.”

McCool reiterated his disapproval on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Nicole Sidman, who is running for the North Carolina House, was present for the meeting to talk about her campaign and speak to voters, she said on X.

In a series of Tweets, Sidman, who identified her family as Jewish, condemned the hate speech, saying she also left early.

“My heart is with any Jewish or LGBTQ kids who heard that kind of abuse for the first time,” Sidman said. “I stand with you and I hope to work together with you so we can all live in a world without this kind of hate.”

Cameron Pruette, a candidate running for the Democratic National Committee, also took to X to share his thoughts.

“The agenda of hatred is targeting so many of us - based on our faiths, who we are, or we love,” Pruette said. “I applaud those who spoke up or walked out. Transphobic, hateful comments have no place in our Town Councils or public life.”

Argument over free speech

At the end of the meeting, McCool said that what most likely occurred was something called “Zoom bombing,” a trend in which people join Zoom meetings to spew hateful speech.

Tofano reiterated that, while he disagreed with what the commentator was saying and found it “hard to listen to,” it was discriminatory to turn down the volume on a speaker.

“That type of abridgment of freedom of speech cannot be tolerated, regardless of the content,” he said. “There are some parts of free speech that are not protected — that is hate speech and those that incite violence and all that…what we experienced tonight was the most fundamental of exercises in American democracy.”

He said he hopes they do not “discriminate” against speakers in the future as the board did Monday night.

But McCool pushed back, saying that the board has the right to lower the volume of the speaker, so long as people could hear it, and, he said, they confirmed with multiple audience members that the speaker could be heard after the volume was lowered.

“I think you are projecting something that did not happen,” McCool said. “We were not trying to take away someone’s freedom of speech.”

Town Attorney Charles Buckley said he would encourage the members to look at the code of ethics before “pointing fingers” during a meeting.

“From a legal standpoint, we need to not be pointing fingers right now on an issue where those comments could come back and hurt the town of Matthews, and allow a lawsuit against us,” Buckley said. “I think we need to look at our code of ethics and see what kind of conduct we should do as a board and your relationship with each other during a meeting.”

Mayor responds and special meeting

On Tuesday, Mayor John Higdon, who was not present at the meeting because he was traveling, responded to the incident.

“I regret the extremely unfortunate incident that interrupted the meeting last evening and I extend my apologies to anyone who was subjected to it including Town staff and meeting attendees,” Higdon said. “While I support the protection of free speech under the First amendment, I also condemn the hateful and offensive words used. They are completely at odds with the welcoming, inclusive community we wish to have in Matthews.”

The town also said in a press release that the individuals who participated in the “Zoom bombing” did not show their faces and “presumably used fake names.”

The release said the board was required to allow the comments to continue because members of the public are allowed to comment on any topic during the public comment portion of the meeting, and words spoken during the portion are protected by the First Amendment.

And because speakers are given five minutes to provide public comment, they are only muted when they reach their time limit or finished making their comments, the town said.

“What we heard was disgusting and my heart broke for those who had to sit and listen to it,” said Mayor Pro Tem Gina Hoover. “I would have loved to shut it down, but we have to stand by the Constitution and allow them their right to speak. I sincerely apologize to anyone who was affected by this deeply upsetting event.”

The town said the board will hold a special meeting in the coming days to discuss methods for public participation during future board meetings.

Jewish Federation weighs in

On Tuesday, the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte also put out a statement, calling for increased moderation at public federations following the comments made at the town meeting.

“While we recognize the importance of free speech, the Matthews Town Commissioners, and local governments and communities across North Carolina, need to make it clear that efforts to demonize or intimidate Jewish and LGBTQ people are unacceptable,” the statement said. “The blatant antisemitism and hatred shown during the Town Commissioners meeting encourages hostility and puts both communities at risk. “

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story attributed a quote about ethics during the meeting to the mayor. It was the town attorney who said it.