‘KKK alive and well in Brick’ — Hate crime charge over Facebook messages
BRICK — A 48-year-old township woman has been charged with a hate crime after prosecutors say she sent someone Facebook messages referencing white supremacist groups.
Denise Scaltrito was arrested Monday and charged with harassment and bias intimidation.
Ocean County prosecutors say Scaltrito used Facebook Messenger to send "threatening and offensive messages" to the victim, including messages that said that the “KKK is alive and well in Brick” and that “the victim should move.”
Prosecutors on Thursday said messages also referenced the "ARYN Brotherhood" and the victim's race, which they did not describe in a news release announcing the arrest. The announcement also did not explain the context of the messages or how Scaltrito knew the other person.
Scaltrito could not be reached for comment Thursday and New Jersey 101.5 did not know whether she had an attorney who could speak on her behalf.
The case may raise free speech questions considering that New Jersey courts have a history of challenging the state's hate crime laws. The state Supreme Court in 2015 struck down part of the law that allowed prosecutors to charge someone if a victim “reasonably believed” they were targeted because of bigotry. The justices said that left the law too vague unlike the part of the law that focused on the suspect's intentions.
A year later, that decision resulted in the dismissal of the hate crime conviction against Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers University student who secretly recorded gay roommate Tyler Clementi having a date in their dorm. Clementi later committed suicide, prompting the charges against Ravi.
Scaltrito, however, is charged under a separate provision of the law that still stands.
Hate speech becomes against the law in New Jersey when it turns into "bias intimidation," defined as committing a crime or threatening to commit a crime in order to intimidate a person based on their race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity.
A person can also be charged if they know that the crime would "cause an individual or group of individuals to be intimidated" based on those characteristics. That's the provision under which Scaltrito has been charged, with the underlying criminal charge of harassment.
A person convicted of bias intimidation faces steeper penalties than they would have faced with the underlying crime.
A Harvard Law Review article published on Thursday notes that the state Supreme Court's 2015 decision leaves the law open to free speech challenges.
A joint statement Thursday from Police Chief James Riccio and Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer suggested that Scaltrito's arrest may not be the last.
"This type of behavior is on the rise, especially on social media," Billhimer said. "Individuals that exploit hatred, intolerance and prejudice with a purpose to intimidate will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.