Recent city council meetings in Capitola and Watsonville have been disrupted by remote participants using vulgar, often racist or antisemitic language. The issue has thrust local officials onto a wobbly tightrope where they will need to balance First Amendment rights with a desire to shield public meetings from hate speech.
In the days leading up to its meeting Oct. 26, Capitola’s city council members received a briefing on a recent, disruptive and rather vile trend infiltrating local government meetings across the state. They learned that, during public comment segments, anonymous people were using the remote participation feature to call in and attack the forum with vulgar, often racist and antisemitic speech.
The phenomenon had yet to hit Capitola. To hear Councilmember Yvette Brooks tell it, an ocean sits between the intellectual grasp of future possibility and the direct experience of it, as city officials would soon find out.
Known colloquially as “Zoom bombing” this coordinated abuse of the public comment forum began early in 2020, as Zoom and videoconference technology became the venue for legislative bodies to conduct their public business. But as the pandemic waned, officials recognized in this new digital dimension expanded opportunities for people to engage with their government.
The first iteration of Zoom bombing was relatively short-lived, but something has resuscitated this trend in recent months, disrupting public meetings from Sonoma County down to San Diego, including Monterey Bay city councils such as Seaside, Monterey and, most recently, Pacific Grove. Some have gone as far as eliminating remote participation for government meetings — Cabrillo College’s board of trustees will vote Monday on whether to follow suit.
The issue has thrust local officials onto a wobbly tightrope where they will need to balance First Amendment rights with a desire to shield public meetings from hate speech. Few, it appears, have certain answers.
When it came time for Capitola’s meeting, it took only a couple of remote comments before a caller, identified as Mary Phagan, used their time to attack Black people, sending violent slurs echoing through the city council chambers.
City attorney Samantha Zutler jumped in, telling the caller they had “5 seconds” to make their comments relevant to city business. The person on the phone responded by attacking Zutler, leading the city to end the call. The next caller spent about 5 seconds loading their allotted three-minute speaking time with slurs against gay men before the city shut them down. Stunned, the council members agreed to take a recess and gather themselves.
“There wasn’t much discussion during the break, just a lot of hugs, and asking ourselves, can we do this? Can we take this anymore [tonight?]” Brooks told Lookout. “The audience was shook. The council had previous discussions about how to address this. But as much as we could prepare, there is nothing like it when it actually happens. And it was awful.”
Only two days earlier, Watsonville experienced the same kind of attack during its Oct. 24 city council meeting. There, too, a caller identified as Mary, with a similar voice to the caller in Capitola, verbally attacked Jews. As city attorney Denise Bazzano interrupted, the caller responded by telling her to “shut up” and that the speech was protected by the First Amendment. Later, another caller used their time to disparage young Black men before the city cut them off.
A startled Mayor Eduardo Montesino acknowledged how upsetting the comments were, and then tried to move onto the next agenda item; however, city executives alerted him that several more callers were waiting to comment on Zoom. Councilmember Kristal Salcido called the situation “way past upsetting” and stormed off the dais. The rest of her colleagues called for a five-minute break.
A week after the Capitola and Watsonville incidents, Carolyn Coleman, executive director and chief executive officer of the League of California Cities, published an article in the organization’s monthly magazine, Western City, about this “emerging challenge” confronting local governments.
The largest hurdle, she said, is that hate speech is “generally protected” under the First Amendment, despite how “vile” and “disruptive” it can be to public meetings. Coleman listed El Cerrito, Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Richmond, San Francisco, San Bernardino, Redwood City, Fremont, San Diego, Morgan Hill and Ventura as recent targets.
Some governments, such as the Walnut Creek City Council and San Francisco Board of Supervisors, voted to end virtual comment. Some have moved public comment to the end of the meeting, hoping to deter bigots by requiring bureaucratic endurance; others have put tighter time limits on slots commenters are allowed to speak.
“While the U.S. Constitution may not make it possible for city councils to ban hate speech altogether, it is heartwarming to see local governments unwaveringly keep public forums safe for their residents by denouncing hate and fostering civil and respectful public participation,” Coleman wrote.
Capitola and Watsonville had different knee-jerk reactions in their meetings. After a recess, Capitola Mayor Margaux Keiser apologized and assured viewers and people in the audience that the comments were “not indicative of our beliefs here in Capitola.” The Capitola City Council postponed a chunk of its agenda to the next meeting. When it posted the video of the meeting on its website, it inserted a warning card at the start.
“Warning,” the frame read in big red letters. “This video contains explicit and hateful language in various public comment sections. Please be advised before watching. This language is in no way representative of the City of Capitola’s values and is not condoned by city staff or officials.”
When Watsonville returned from its recess, the city council and city staff decided to move the rest of public comment to the end of the meeting, but hid the decision behind a not entirely honest excuse: The agenda, Montesino said, was packed and councilmemmbers had a lot to get through. They attempted to wash the vibe of the room with enthusiasm as they skipped ahead to presenting certificates to student graduates of the city’s Watsonville Academy and other warm-hearted proclamations. When the city posted the video of the meeting to its website days later, it had censored much of the racist and antisemitic language with loud beeps.
In the days that followed, both the Capitola and Watsonville governments decided to nix virtual public comment through at least the rest of the calendar year, resolving to come back in January or February with options on how to proceed.
Rene Mendez, Watsonville’s city manager, admitted “it’s a tough one.” Unlike other cities, Watsonville began offering virtual public comment again only in August thanks to technical upgrades. With just two meetings left in the year, and virtual public comment being a relatively new amenity for the city’s public meetings, Mendez said he felt comfortable temporarily scrapping the feature and reassessing how best to deploy it. However, he said the technology comes with too many benefits for Watsonville to permanently get rid of it.
“We need to do everything we can to be as open as possible for people to engage and weigh in,” Mendez told Lookout. “The simple fact is, we’re in a new world. How can we take advantage of technology and what the world is today? Now that we have the capabilities, that should be our default. We’re prepared to figure out a way to make it work. I’m hoping at some point, people move onto something else other than this ‘Zoom bombing.’”
Jamie Goldstein, Capitola’s city manager, largely echoed Mendez. He told Lookout that “it would be nice to keep it as an option,” but emphasized that the law does not require government bodies to offer it.
“I don’t think anyone in Capitola lives more than a five-minute drive from city hall, it’s not that difficult to get to meetings in person,” Goldstein said. “There are definitely a lot of ways people can participate. … We don’t get a lot of people participating via Zoom, but this is also 2023 and [the technology] makes it easier for people to participate.”
Ultimately, Goldstein said the city council will decide how to move forward. Because remote participation has expanded access for residents to engage in government, Brooks said her instinct is to keep it, but not before figuring out how to protect people from what happened at that Oct. 26 meeting.
“My family was logged in that day, my daughter luckily walked away before the hate speech began,” Brooks said. “You hear about this stuff, you prepare for it, but there is nothing like it when it happens. This was violence.”
For Brooks, she feels the issue should be taken up at the state level since it was Gov. Gavin Newsom’s discretion that allowed virtual public comment to continue after the pandemic. Last year, the state legislature passed Senate Bill 1100, which gives legislative officials presiding over a public meeting the power to boot disruptive attendees from the room (digital or in person) after a warning. Still, Brooks said she thinks there could be more guardrails, but whether that’s on the state or the local government is something the city will discuss.
The threat of Zoom bombing has put all local officials on high alert. During a luncheon last week, I caught County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios and asked him about the phenomenon.
“We’re waiting for it,” Palacios said. If it happens, he told me the county has a plan. He wondered aloud whether the county might be able to rewrite its harassment policy in a way that creates a defense against these kinds of hateful barrages.
In the City of Santa Cruz, Mayor Fred Keeley said he met with the city clerk last week to understand “literally what buttons could be pressed” to cut someone off at the first instance of “comments that are out of bounds.” Keeley, who has been in public service for decades, told me he’s heard a lot of inappropriate public comments over the course of his career. The crucial split here is that these people can remain faceless and hide behind anonymity. Notably, state law says a person commenting at a public meeting does not have to identify themselves or their location.
However, Keeley said remote public comment is too valuable and won’t support shutting it down just “because a couple jackasses want to ruin it for everybody.”
“I think the culture has gotten tipped over to where people think they are going to be immune from things that offend them, that’s not the world we live in,” Keeley said. “I don’t find it very complicated. Use bad language and we’ll shut you off. I’m not going to tie myself up in knots about the public hearing a bad word or two. That’s the balancing act of rights to free speech.”
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