Hell’s Kitchen’s first openly LGBTQIA state assembly member has spoken out after being banned from attending a Hockey Pride event at Madison Square Garden — ironically, for criticizing people being barred through the venue’s facial recognition technology.

Tony Simone, who was elected to represent New York’s 75th District last fall, was told by MSG management that he would no longer be welcome at the NHL-sponsored “Hockey is for Everyone” event on January 27, despite making history as a gay lawmaker whose district includes the venue.

Tony Simone Brad Hoylman Madison Square Garden
Assembly Member Tony Simone (center) and State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal (right) at the Madison Square Garden press conference on Sunday which got Simone banned from MSG. Photo courtesy Tony Simone.

His crime? Speaking out against James Dolan, the owner of the Garden, for using facial recognition technology to eject attorneys from law firms who are suing his company. Simone was one of a group of lawmakers who slammed Dolan at a press conference Sunday, which also included Hell’s Kitchen’s State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal and City Council Member Erik Bottcher. The original facial recognition ban applies to lawyers from the 90 firms currently suing the MSG group for a number of issues. Madison Square Garden Entertainment also own Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theatre and the Tao restaurants in Midtown and Chelsea.

The lawmakers warned that if Dolan does not ditch the facial recognition bans, MSG should lose its liquor licenses, a City exemption that allows it to have more than 2,500 seats at the venue, and the $43 million-a-year tax exemption on the Garden itself. The call apparently prompted the revenge move against Simone.

“I was disinvited because we spoke out against a policy that is wrong,” Simone told W42ST. The snub was first reported by Chelsea News. He had been looking forward to the Pride-themed event, “as I’m the new assembly member and the first openly LGBTQIA assembly member for the district in a very LGBTQIA community,” he added. “But after the press conference, I was disinvited by a rep — who said it’d be a ‘bad time’ for me to attend. And I said, ‘Oh, well it hurt Jim [Dolan]’s feelings because I and other leaders, including many advocacy groups, feel that this policy is not right.’” 

An Elton John concert at Madison Square Garden. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Simone — with Hoylman-Sigal, Bottcher and members of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP) and the Policing and Social Justice Project gathered on Sunday to protest the venue’s policy, which allows patrons identified by Madison Square Garden’s facial identification technology to be barred if they are on a list of law firms involved in litigation against the MSG group.

Several attorneys recently barred from the arena and Radio City Music Hall have fought back against the blacklisting by using a 1941 law that protected Broadway theater critics from being banned from performance venues for writing critical pieces. But the law excludes sporting events, which has prevented the banned attendees from attending Knicks and Rangers games in the arena.

The ban covers lawyers directly suing MSG and other people from their firms – which became evident when New Jersey mom Kelly Conlon, was prevented from joining her daughter’s Girl Scout troop to see the Rockettes before Christmas. The law firm where she works was involved in litigation against the MSG group, prompting the ban, even though Conlon is not involved in the case. But the move made public the fact that MSG was feeding pictures of potentially hundreds of attorneys into facial recognition software to identify them. Critics of the policy have argued that the rule is being used as an intimidation tactic to discourage lawsuits against MSG

“The mother at Radio City was out in the cold for two hours, and she wasn’t even an attorney suing him and just worked for the firm,” said Simone. “So now we’re going to have these lists where security determines who can come to show, even when they’re clearly not a threat? It’s a slippery slope.” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office is investigating the legality of recent bans, added Simone: “The fact that they disinvited me clearly indicates that he retaliates.”

While Madison Square Garden is technically a private entity, the corporation’s Midtown venue is publicly-supported. The venue has been exempt from paying property taxes since 1982, saving over $875 million in 41 years. W42ST reached out to the Office of the DA for further information on the investigation and we will update if we hear back. The MSG Group is traded on the New York Stock Market but Dolan, its founder and CEO, owns 70 percent of voting rights.

Simone said that the issue was about more than any one person’s ability to visit the venue, telling W42ST: “It’s really not just about Jim Dolan and Madison Square Garden, even though I know he gets his feelings hurt easily. It’s about abusing this technology and corporate bosses that could use it to target individuals. We want to change the legislation.” 

Tony Simone Jerry Nadler
Assembly Member Tony Simone with Congressman Jerry Nadler last year. Nadler also signed a letter protesting the MSG facial technology bans. Photo: Phil O’Brien

City Council Member Bottcher told W42ST: “Technology and computing power is increasing exponentially every year. While that has positive implications for some sectors, such as health care, there are also some frightening implications, like the abuse of facial recognition technology. MSG has crossed the line in its use of this technology.”

And Senator Hoylman-Sigal said: “There is absolutely no security purpose in ejecting a young mother from chaperoning her daughter’s Girl Scout troop field trip to the Rockettes. It sets a dangerous precedent to permit MSG Entertainment to maintain such power, and we demand they cease the use of this highly flawed technology immediately.”

On Wednesday the New York Post revealed a judge in Delaware had ridiculed the ban as “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Records of a November 3 pre-trial Zoom call involving MSG at the Chancery Court in Delaware show Judge Kathaleen McCormick telling Dolan’s legal team it was like an enemy of McDonald’s being told “if you attempt to buy a Big Mac, you know, we’re going to kick you out.” She added: “It just seemed totally crazy.”

W42ST reached out to Madison Square Garden for comment on Simone’s ban, and we have yet to receive a response. A representative previously told the New York Post: “We are disappointed he has chosen to side with a small group of attorneys defending ticket scalpers and other money grabbing schemes, rather than honor our LGBTQ community and the underprivileged kids of the Garden of Dreams Foundation at the January 27th Rangers Pride Night game.” 

Simone countered: “They can’t change the script on this. They know why I was disinvited — because we spoke out against the policy. That’s it.” The lawmaker told W42ST that his focus is solely on making sure the venue’s rules are fair. “We love Madison Square Garden, it’s a great institution,” he said. “They shouldn’t discriminate and use this technology to go against folks that hurt Jim Dolan’s feelings. He could just rise above it and get rid of this policy — and be a grown up.” 

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  1. Slippery slope indeed! Where will the discrimination end? Some lawyers and activists today…who is it going to be tomorrow? If MSG gets an enormous tax break, there must be non-discrimination rules they must abide by?

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