A defamation lawsuit filed Aug. 10 by Rochester dentist Nicholas Nicosia against Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart could turn on where the lines fall between hate speech and parody and between so-called cancel culture and legitimate criticism.
Calling charges of racism leveled against him by Barnhart and others “a hate crime hoax,” Nicosia maintains in the state-court action filed in Monroe County that Barnhart’s call to “cancel” him over allegedly racist actions cost him the loss of friends and employees, and shaved 30 percent to 40 percent off his dental practice’s business.
The dispute stems from fallout over a party Nicosia and his wife held last year. Jerrod Jones, a Black Rochester firefighter who attended, claims it was a blatantly racist spoof of the Juneteenth holiday.
Jones attended the party as a guest of his supervisor, then Rochester Fire Department Lieutenant Jeffrey Krywy, who resigned in the wake of negative publicity surrounding the incident.
In a federal court complaint filed May 23 accusing the city of Rochester and its fire department of a longstanding pattern of racism, Jones describes the 2022 party as featuring allegedly racist tropes like prominently displayed buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and signs celebrating the Juneteenth holiday.
While Jones’ suit cites the 2022 party’s allegedly racist overtones, its main arguments center on what Jones alleges is a long history of overt racism exhibited by the Rochester Fire Department. It cites Jones being taken to the party as one of a series of allegedly racist actions taken by Krywy and other RFD personnel.
According to Jones’ court action, which does not name Nicosia as a defendant, the allegedly racist tropes displayed at Nicosia’s East Avenue lawn party made him feel like he was in “Get Out,” a Hollywood horror movie that portrays ailing aging white people as taking over the bodies of younger healthier Blacks.
Jones’ complaint describes guests at the event as warmly welcoming Krywy, but edging nervously away from Jones, whom Krywy ordered not to photograph the event.
At a 2022 press conference held after Jones filed a notice of claim stating that he intended to sue the city, Nicosia portrayed the party, which also allegedly featured an exotic dancer dressed as Barnhart and headshots of Barnhart and other liberal and progressive Democrats on stakes in the ground, as a harmless political spoof akin to a Saturday Night Live skit. Jones was warmly welcomed to the event, Nicosia claimed.
At the press conference, Nicosia’s wife, Mary, responded to claims that she had made racist comments on Twitter by admitting to having done so, but said that she made the posts as a “persona” that was not an accurate reflection of who she is.
While Twitter “gives you an opportunity to be someone that you’re not,” she asserted, as her actual self, “I am not a racist person.”
Jones’ court action cites display of large Juneteenth flags and the exotic dancer dressed as Barnhart’s handing out Juneteenth mugs at the July 7, 2022, event as evidence that party was meant in part to mock the Juneteenth holiday.
Nicosia’s Aug. 10 court action denies the 2022 event was meant to spoof Juneteenth, stating that “the party was not even held during the month of June.
The dentist’s defamation claim against Barnhart springs from a press conference held last year at which Barnhart spoke. It also names the press conference’s organizer, Nathan McMurray, a civil rights lawyer, who filed Jones’ claim against the city and the Rochester RFD.
In the defamation brief, Nicosia traces much of his current woes to Barnhart’s alleged statement at the press conference that “it’s really easy to cancel the Nicosias.”
None of the decorations at the 2022 event “mocked Juneteenth, sexualized Barnhart, projected ‘violence,’ signified ‘death,’ and neither can these decorations be remotely construed as ‘spoofing’ Juneteenth or ridiculing Black Americans,” Nicosia’s complaint asserts.
It adds: “There were no images of Democratic leaders ‘on stakes’ throughout the yard. There was no
‘burlesque dance’ mocking Democratic County Legislator Rachel Barnhart.”
Proof of the Nicosias’ lack of racial animus, the complaint continues, could be seen in the fact that cocktail napkins used at the event promoted the candidacy of La’Ron Singletary, a Black former Rochester police chief who at the time was running as a Republican in an unsuccessful bid to unseat Rep. Joe Morelle, a Democrat who represents Monroe County.
The action seeks unspecified damages as compensation for injuries including “the destruction of Nicosia Dental” as well as unspecified punitive damages.
Barnhart declined to comment.
McMurray could not immediately be reached.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].