NORTH ATTLEBORO - A member of Representative Town Meeting and other town boards has taken to Facebook to spread images joking about violence against Muslims and comparing first lady Michelle Obama to a gorilla.
But, so far, the posts have inspired little reaction from others in town government.
A member of the the town's RTM coordinating committee, the cable TV advisory committee and the veterans advisory board, Paul Couturier of Precinct 2 frequently shares political memes on Facebook that sometimes take an Islamophobic and racial edge.
One picture featured a shark, toothy mouth agape, with the text: "Throw me a Muslim."
Another depicted a gorilla in repose with its male genitalia exposed, with the text: "A rare glimpse of the first lady on vacation."
The latter post prompted North TV Executive Director Peter Gay to comment that he was disappointed Couturier was sharing a racist image.
Derogatory comparisons of black people to apes have a long history, and such imagery has abounded online during Barack Obama's presidency.
Couturier, who is up for re-election to RTM in the April 5 town election, responded to an inquiry about the post, saying: "What's racist about it?"
Couturier said he didn't think the publicly viewable posts were relevant to his positions in town government.
"Anybody who finds my posts offensive, they can feel free to de-friend me," Couturier said. "I'm not on Facebook as a popularity contest."
Selectman Patrick Reynolds said voters will decide whether such posts matter to them.
"Certainly, every citizen and member of government in town has the right to post whatever opinions they want. However, the views expressed by any elected government representative will be judged by the voters come Election Day," Reynolds said in an email. "Let me be clear - Mr. Couturier's comments do not reflect my personal values and are incompatible with the values of this community."
Reynolds said divisive rhetoric has become the norm because many people rarely appreciate the experiences of diverse people in the community. On social media, he said, it's important to create an environment where everyone feels respected.
Selectmen Chairman Paul Belham said he could not condemn Couturier's exercise of his First Amendment rights.
Belham said Couturier had earned the right to express those comments through years in the military, which spanned 1981 to 2011 and took him to Iraq.
"The only place we could stop it is if he was acting in an official capacity on town floor, at the microphone or at a town function," said Belham, who specifically noted he was speaking as a private citizen, and not on behalf of selectmen.
Belham compared the public Facebook posts to speaking in the privacy of one's own home.
But, in an era where social media hosts more political dialogue than the local newspaper, public online posts and comments by candidates and elected officials often carry weight.
In 2012, Norton School Committee candidate C.J. McMahon, then 19, caught criticism for Twitter comments that disparaged women. The tweets gained attention before the election, which he lost.
Asked whether the "Throw me a Muslim" image promoted violence against people for their faith, Couturier denied that Islam was a religion, pointing to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and other atrocities committed by extremists.
"How is it a religion? They behead people. There's nothing but hatred coming out of them," he said.
Regardless, he insisted the image was simply a picture of a shark.
"Do you really believe sharks can talk? They're animals. They can't talk," he said. "Should I have posted a picture of a cat?"
Similarly, he said the picture of the gorilla did not have a racial connotation.
"People need to grow a skin," he said. "People need to stop being obsessed about the whole race thing."
In a comment regarding the image comparing Michelle Obama to a gorilla, Gary Lake, a candidate for North Attleboro School Committee, wrote: "Sadly, until there was a picture on the cover of mag or a cartoon that depicted the POTUS as a chimp (and caused widespread outrage) I seriously did not know it was considered racist.
"In all honesty I thought it was a comment about his ears. Live and learn."
Selectmen John Rhyno, Anne Lonzo and Joan Marchitto and RTM coordinating committee Chairman Bob Nerz did not return requests for comment on Couturier's posts.
Couturier said he believes The Sun Chronicle and others are conspiring against him because of opposing views.
"Obviously, someone has a vendetta against me," he said.
Asked if voters would be reasonable in considering a candidate's politically-oriented online posts on Election Day, Couturier said: "To me, it's all about values. If someone shares my values, I'll support them."