Inclusive Park Sparks Debate Over Acceptance, Free Speech

By KATIE MOEN
For The Westfield Leader

COUNTY — A celebration of unity and acceptance was somewhat marred last week when a social-media post made by the Union County Board of County Commissioners elicited dozens of heated responses from residents who spoke out in opposition to the county’s new LGBTQ-inclusive park space.

Tëmike Park, a small, specially-dedicated playground section of Cedar Brook Park in Plainfield, celebrated its official grand opening on June 18 as part of the county’s ongoing LGBTQ Pride Month festivities. According to information provided by the county, the park is comprised of a purple playground with extra-wide ramps and adaptable play equipment for wheelchairs, a sensory-friendly labyrinth maze, a rainbow garden and a shaded grove of willow trees arranged in the shape of a triangle in remembrance of the Holocaust.

The park, Commission Chair Rebecca Williams said, was intentionally designed to “help all residents feel included and accepted.”

“The idea of a public park is that the entire public, no matter their religious or non-religious beliefs, the color of their skin, their age, their physical abilities, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity — that everyone feels safe and has access to a safe space to be themselves,” Chair Williams said, speaking at a meeting of the Union County Board of County Commissioners held on June 23. “As you all know, LGBTQ people in particular have been oppressed and discriminated against, and this continues to have a very strong impact on health and well-being. Studies show that LGBTQ folks, especially youth and people with special needs, are at a much higher risk for mental health problems, substance abuse, homelessness and suicide. Transgender individuals and LGBTQ folks of color face even higher risks.”

The park, Chair Williams continued, is intended to reduce stigma and promote acceptance among the county’s diverse citizenry.

When images of the ribbon-cutting ceremony were posted to the county’s Facebook page, however, they were swiftly met by a number of disparaging remarks that intermingled with more positive responses. One commenter suggested that parents who choose to bring their children to the playground should be “investigated by the child protective agency for exposing their children to inappropriate behavior” while another woman compared a drag performer who had been hired by the county to a clown that had “escaped from the circus.”

Initially, the county opted to “hide” the negative messages by utilizing a Facebook tool that allows site administrators to mitigate comment threads by removing certain remarks from the public view.

In doing so, however, they may have inadvertently violated the commentators’ right to free speech.

“When these comments started popping up, we really weren’t sure what to do,” Kelly Martins, director of public information for the county, said during an interview with The Westfield Leader.

“Many of them were very disrespectful, and we needed to take a little time to confer with county [legal advisors] to figure out the best way forward. The comments were hidden for one night and were later returned to the thread on the advice of our legal team. It was determined that even though there were many distasteful comments, they should be left up for the public to view — even if they were deemed hateful.”

According to the New Jersey League of Municipalities (NJLM), the legality of deleting comments on a municipal or county page can be something of an ethical quagmire.

“If your municipality uses social media to engage in public discussion and discourse then those platforms could very likely be considered a public forum or limited public forum and you would be restricted from deleting or limiting comments,” NJLM states on its website.

The League goes on to note that any governing entity that utilizes social media as a direct form of communication with the public needs to establish clear and resolute standards, “which clearly outline the rules and limitations on allowable comments.”

Chair Williams responded to the comments with a post of her own. “Amazing amount of hate from homophobes and haters. Tëmike Park is for EVERYONE. However, as LGBTQ+ children and adults are at higher risk for bullying and hateful comments (case in point, some of the folks posting here), we wanted to make sure that it was understood that this park is a welcoming and safe space for the LGBTQ+ community,” she said via Facebook once the comments had been restored. “The playground is purple, the color of anti-bullying, and the swings and other aspects are designed for inclusiveness for folks of all identities and abilities. Tax dollars at work? LGBTQ+ residents pay taxes, too. Despite your hate, though, the park opened successfully yesterday, and was well-attended by folks from all over the county. Happy Pride.”

Tëmike Park is located at 168 Stelle Avenue, Plainfield, and is now officially open to the public.

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