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NOV 25 - DEC 03, 2014

The Rest of the Story: City Hall Response to Cartoon Is No Laughing - But a First Amendment - Matter

By Frank Parlato

November 25, 2014

The cartoon that all the fuss was about....

The circulation of a political cartoon at city hall last week poking fun at, or, if you prefer, castigating in crude imagery, the administration of Mayor Paul A. Dyster had acting-Mayor Kristen Grandinetti leaving her post as a school teacher to call a press conference to condemn the flier, and City Controller Maria Brown seeking to charge the cartoon's distributor, Sam Fruscione, with harassment.

The cartoon portrayed, with an unflattering and fat image of what purports to be Controller Brown, sitting atop a cash machine which is sending out dollars to be enjoyed by Senior Planner Tom DeSantis, Mayor Dyster, Acting Code Enforcement Director Dennis Virtuoso and Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation CEO John Percy.

At the heart of the offensive elements of the cartoon was a partly shaded out top of the letter "o" in the word Controller so as to appear, at least to some, as a "u," thus forming the vulgar word which we won’t publish here at the risk of offending our readers.

Fruscione, a former two-term city councilman, placed 45 copies of the cartoon in city hall last Monday (Nov. 17). He also handed copies of the cartoon to several people attending a budget meeting, making no secret as to his actions.

Fruscione appeared on surveillance video and Brown asked Niagara Falls Police Supt. Bryan DalPorto to review the footage to determine if Fruscione could be charged for bringing the fliers to city hall.

DalPorto told the Reporter that he got a call from Brown asking if this incident might be considered a criminal matter.

DalPorto said he told Brown that it was not a criminal offense to distribute fliers at city hall, offensive though they may be.

"It's my job to clarify and I think that's what I did," said DalPorto. "This is a First Amendment issue. This is freedom of speech -- it is protected -- even speech a person considers offensive."

DalPorto explained, "A lot of people think offensive speech is harassment. They don't understand what constitutes harassment. If someone threatened someone when they delivered the flier that might be harassment, but offensive speech is not banned speech."

DalPorto also made a distinction between criminal and civil matters.

The real Maria Brown looks nothing like the cartoon.


"Offended people have a remedy. They can make a civil complaint. That would be up to them; the police would not be involved. They could follow the civil path if they thought they were wronged."

The day after Fruscione delivered the fliers, the Niagara Gazette published a story headlined “Former Councilman Sam Fruscione admits distributing crudely-drawn cartoon attacking city officials.”

While Fruscione did not create the cartoon --the cartoon clearly carried the name Sterling Publications and was drawn by local artist Gerald Skrlin -- the Gazette reported that Fruscione was responsible for bringing the cartoon to city hall. The Gazette chose not to publish the cartoon itself.

"I saw the cartoon as relevant to the discussion of the troubled 2015 city budget,” Fruscione told the Reporter, claiming he did not notice the shaded out "o" that looked like a "u."

“New York State recognizes the historicity of political cartoons in the education of fifth and sixth graders and includes political cartoons in statewide testing. Such cartoons are considered to be historic documents worthy of research and study,” said Fruscione.

He said the theme of the cartoon was the wasting of taxpayer cash and of public employees making pigs of themselves at the proverbial hog trough.

Fruscione said the words "Dinner Time" meant "Budget time," meaning that greedy takers are called to city hall to feast on the taxpayers.

Within days of reporting the cartoon distribution, the Gazette, in an editorial, chastised Fruscione, writing in part, "(T)his particular cartoon crossed the line, especially when it came to its portrayal of Brown….

"The image of the controller (as) an overweight woman (is) a hurtful and offensive representation that has no place in any sort of commentary related to the performance of any public employee.

"Sadly, it gets worse…. (I)t’s clear to us that the 'o' in the first part of the word “controller” written on the dress of the woman appearing in the cartoon was ever-so-slightly altered, just enough to make it look like a 'u.'

"Adult readers shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure out the cartoon creator’s underlying message…..

"The cartoon hit Brown … below the belt.

"A former city councilman and school teacher (Fruscione) should’ve thought about that possibility before he decided to lay copies of it around her workplace….city hall, a public space where employees should be expected to perform their duties while not being subjected to low-brow forms of abuse, bullying and other behaviors that have been deemed inappropriate at all levels of government and in private-sector offices across the nation for years."

Brown told the Gazette that she considered the cartoon and its distribution as the latest in a series of recent incidents where she felt "bullied." adding that "such antics inside city hall are part of the reason she signed up to be a citizen lobbyist for a state workplace bullying bill."

"I'm tired of the bullying," Brown told the Gazette and said she discussed the matter with an attorney. "I'm tired of people beating me up."

Brown said the flier was typical of the "intimidation tactics" she experienced when Fruscione was a council member.

"Not only, in my opinion, is he a bully, but he's immature and a poor example of what is educating our students today," Brown told the Gazette.

The cartoon's creator, Niagara Falls resident Gerald Skrlin told the Reporter that he did not intend that the "o" should appear as a "u" but staunchly defended his right to lampoon anyone in politics, as well as saying his cartoon captured the spirit of everything that's wrong at city hall.

Skrlin resides on Buffalo Avenue in the old Lavinia Porter home and operates an art gallery featuring his works and a museum dedicated to Porter, one of the early and famous residents of Niagara Falls.

Skrlin has had a longstanding beef with Brown and her husband, Pat Brown, a well known accountant and former city controller, who own the vacant lot next to Skrlin's home. Skrlin has appeared before the city council claiming the Browns, along with the Code Enforcement Department, have conspired to force him out of his home.

Skrlin addressed the city council two months ago at a Saturday morning community outreach meeting at the Duke Center where he minced no words in stating that he felt he was being targeted by Code Enforcement.

Skrlin told the Reporter that each time he voices his suspicions about the Browns, he finds his property being inspected days later by the city.

The Reporter contacted Acting Code Enforcement Director Dennis Virtuoso, who said it wasn't true.

"Just take a look at his house," Virtuoso said. "He was in court for three years. The people at the Parkway Condominiums across the street were complaining. He had peeling paint, gutters were hanging. There were numerous violations. We had him in court and finally he is starting to fix it up. You don't go to court for frivolous violations."

The Reporter asked Virtuoso, "Did Maria Brown ever ask you to look into Skrlin's property?"

"Just the opposite," Virtuoso said. "Skrlin often asked us to look into Maria's property next door. She never once filed a complaint against him."

Four calls over three days to Controller Brown were not returned as of press time.

One of the intriguing facets in the devolving cartoon hoopla is the role of Acting Mayor and Councilwoman Grandinetti, a pre-K public school teacher. She took such umbrage at the crude cartoon that she called a press conference to condemn it.

Yet, recently, Grandinetti posted a profane video on Facebook featuring female children as young as six repeating the F word intended by its creators to promote “women's equality."

Some of the same people who saw Grandinetti’s F-word video as creative and groundbreaking, also saw Skrlin’s cartoon as meriting the suspension of Fruscione’s First Amendment rights and his arrest by city police.

That Skrlin's cartoon will be seen by some as amusing, others as ridiculous, raunchy and vile, or a dead-on lampoon of city hall, the attempted trampling of Fruscione’s First Amendment rights is no laughing matter.

Fruscione told the Reporter, "They tried to arrest me for possession of a political flier."

However, had it happened, Niagara Falls would have been the laughing stock of the nation.

A defiant Sam Fruscione (r) tells reporters just what he thinks of them after losing on election night last year.






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Contact Info

©2014 The Niagara Falls Reporter Inc.
POB 3083, Niagara Falls, N.Y. 14304
Phone: (716) 284-5595

Publisher and Editor in Chief: Frank Parlato
Managing Editor: Dr. Chitra Selvaraj
Senior Editor: Tony Farina