NJ educator in trans rant beer-toss case sues for defamation

FILE - Generic gavel on wooden table.

A New Jersey middle school vice principal who was filmed tossing a cup of beer at people who had been recording his wife's rant against an apparent transgender woman's use of a public restroom is suing them for defamation, asserting he never said a word about transgender issues.

Michael Smurro, a vice principal at Neptune Middle School who has been on leave without pay since shortly after the April incident at an outdoor restaurant in Galloway Township, has filed a civil suit against four people who are suing him and his wife over the incident.

In his countersuit, Smurro accuses Carolyn DiPietro, Christopher Benino, and Robert and Debra Harris of defamation, and false light invasion of privacy, claiming in the latter charge that the defendants made public statements accusing him of something he did not do.

"Defendant Michael Smurro himself never uttered a word to the plaintiffs or anyone that disparaged transgendered individuals, or in fact any individuals," his attorney Alexander Schachtel wrote in court papers filed earlier this month. "Plaintiffs repeatedly alleged, stated, or implied that (Michael Smurro) had made a transphobic speech or rant, or had leveled bigoted comments towards themselves, when (he) had never actually stated or uttered any such thing."

The attorney also wrote in court papers that the identity of the person who used the restroom has never been determined "and it also remains unknown if that person was in fact transgendered or was instead a man who had decided, for whatever reason, to use the ladies’ room."

Schachtel told The Associated Press on Monday that the civil suit against Smurro is groundless because the people who filed it did not suffer any harm.

"Michael is being sued because his wife made comments that offended the sensibilities of the plaintiffs," Schachtel said. "Michael and Lisa Smurro have the right to their opinions and the right to voice them in public, even if some may find them disagreeable. No one should have their livelihood threatened for expressing an opinion. When this story went viral, Michael and Lisa Smurro were viciously attacked and defamed on social media. There was much outrage and little search for the truth. We hope to set the story straight."

David Shanies, the lawyer for those suing Smurro, replied, "Some people, when they find themselves in a hole, climb out of it. Other people continue to dig deeper and deeper. Anybody who watches the videos and hears (Lisa Smurro) scream 'She's a man! She's a man!' can make their own judgment about whether she's talking about seeing someone she thought was a man as opposed to a transgender woman."

The Smurros and people who say they were hit with beer from his cup when he threw it in their direction have filed criminal complaints in municipal court alleging harassment. That case is pending.

The footage from the outdoor restaurant shows Lisa Smurro complaining at length about a person she apparently believed was a transgender woman using the women’s bathroom. New Jersey law prohibits discrimination based on gender identify and permits people to use public restrooms that correspond to their gender identity.

The footage shows that when the couple became aware someone was filming, they got up and walked over. Lisa Smurro continued to complain and a woman at the table replied: "Please take your hate elsewhere."

Michael Smurro then tossed the contents of a cup of beer at occupants of the table.

"Here you go, pal," he says on the video. "There you go."

Smurro's countersuit claims his career and reputation have been damaged, "perhaps irreparably," noting that Neptune school administrators received 80 voicemail messages demanding disciplinary action against Smurro in just three days after the case was publicized.



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