“Zoom bombing” has hit our towns – what should we do? | An Alternative View | Diana Diamond | Almanac Online |

Local Blogs

An Alternative View

By Diana Diamond

E-mail Diana Diamond

About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

View all posts from Diana Diamond

“Zoom bombing” has hit our towns – what should we do?

Uploaded: Oct 18, 2023

Yes, we’ve been “zoom bombed” right here in Palo Alto. The city council has become the latest target of people who call in via Zoom with lewd, racist, ugly speech.

At Monday night’s City Council meeting, I was listening to residents’ comments on Zoom about redeveloping the Cubberley site. As the 20 or so comments were being heard, the bombing started – about 10 speakers that night, when called on, started with anti-Semitic rants, racial and misogynist slurs and vulgar remarks.

When their names were called to speak, one by one their first words were “Can you hear me?” When each heard a “yes” response, that speaker launched into a tirade --phrases like (paraphrased) “Were after you, Jews.” or just “You Jews,” or “You bitch,” spoken to Mayor Lydia Kou.

Their comments were ugly, hateful and mean-spirited, and were pre-planned. I kept on asking myself as I heard them, “What is happening in our city, in our country?”

Seven individuals spoke in a row, each had some nasty comment, which shows a concerted effort to interrupt the meeting.

The remarks upset council members, all of whom condemned what had just happened.

Mayor Kou did a great job in controlling the comments, asking if the caller was only commenting on an agenda item, and when the person started ranting, she talked over him with a prepared statement
The issue here is freedom of speech. People are claiming they say bad things because they have the right to free speech. So, Kou was prepared for the tirades, and once the caller was off-topic, she rightfully ordered the city clerk to cut them off.

All this zoom-bombing is part of a national movement by white supremacists to call into city council meetings across the country and make lewd and vulgar remarks, especially racist and anti-Semitic comments.

Atherton and Redwood City have also had similar incidents. The latter decided to end public comments on Zoom, and only allow in-person comments or letters to the council.

That was one city’s response, but what should Palo Alto do?

I certainly don’t feel the council should ban resident comments over Zoom. That would mean that hundreds of Palo Altans, who have made wonderful and thoughtful comments to council over Zoom would be deprived of their ability to comment on a council agenda item, as so many of us have done in the past. We have freedom of speech rights, too, and I don’t want a band of supremacists causing enough of a disturbance to eliminate my on-air comments.

We can’t let bands of people with extreme views capture our country, including the House of Representatives, where 10 or so ultra-conservatives have prevented the House from doing anything.

Going in person to a council meeting to speak on a specific item can be tedious, especially on cold rainy nights, or when a babysitter is not available, or the elderly who f8nd it difficult to drive at night. Sometimes people attend the meeting, they may have to wait until 10 or 10:30 p.m. before their issue comes up. No, we residents need the ability to address the council by Zoom from home.

So how should Palo Alto handle this problem of hateful comments on Zoom at council meetings? Perhaps there are ways to better screen people who want to speak by asking them in advance, for an address or whether s/he is there to specifically speak on an agenda item and which one, and then determine if these callers are possibly there just to give a hate message. Touchy, I know.

My concern is that lately, some Americans have been using this “freedom of speech” reason too broadly. It has become a vehicle of the ultra-left and right to use as their excuse for their hateful comments.

Remember, free speech has its limits, e.g., not to call “fire” in a movie theatre when there is no fire.

A few narrow categories of speech are not protected. The main such categories are incitement, defamation, fraud, obscenity, child pornography, fighting words, and threats, according to constitutional experts’ description of this freedom. And these limits are there to advance broad aims, such as national security, public health and public morals.

That being said, we can discuss freedom of speech, we can talk about the public’s right to express their thoughts before the city council, we can talk about zoom-bombers. But the messages of hate are growing in society, and now locally,

That is something that is ruining our country and that we must fight – in Palo Alto, in Atherton, in Redwood City—and in this nation.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 18, 2023 at 9:05 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I am 100% with you on this.

I do have to say that in a situation like this it is fairly obvious what has happened. But what might happen when say a zoom bomb occurs on something less serious. Perhaps it would be people campaigning for a certain political proposal or bond? Perhaps it would be people bombing about climate change, or some other hot topic? Perhaps it would even be bored teens looking for likes on TIKTOK.

Does freedom of speech mean hearing something with which we disagree? Does freedom of speech mean face to face, in person, drowning out the speaker public discourse?

Perhaps in this high tech age we have to redefine what is meant by freedom of speech. Gone are the days we could all write to our local newspaper, in fact gone are the days we can freely post on PA online and then "like" other comments.

This discussion is well worth having, not only in this community but everywhere.

Posted by Neil Grandy, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 18, 2023 at 12:25 pm

Neil Grandy is a registered user.

The solution is simple...like radio phone-in shows, there is a time delay before outside commentaries are broadcast.

Use this technology as it is not rocket science.

Posted by Victor Bishop, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Oct 18, 2023 at 1:48 pm

Victor Bishop is a registered user.

I think this will be handled like everything else in Palo Alto, using the Palo Alto process. We need to bring in consultants, appoint stakeholder groups and ad hoc committees. The other various commissions and committees in the city need to weigh in as well.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Oct 18, 2023 at 2:56 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

Ending public comments on Zoom is the effective approach. If something is being abused, you take it away. Bottom line, end of story. It's unfair to the residents who want to participate in democracy, but nobody ever said life is fair.

Posted by pogo, a resident of Woodside: other,
on Oct 18, 2023 at 3:41 pm

pogo is a registered user.

You can't eliminate public comment because it's required by California law. Besides, you should want the public to comment on issues. Isn't that what a public meeting is for - to HEAR from the public? Not everyone is eloquent, well spoken or even reasonable. Welcome to real life!

Freedom of speech is VITAL - it's why it's in the FIRST amendment. Without it, our other freedoms aren't really worth much, are they? As the author noted, while not absolute, as long as someone isn't making a direct threat or inciting violence, our country's default position for freedom of speech is to allow it. And, yes, hate speech, vile speech and offensive, racist, sexist speech is PROTECTED. No one has the right to live their life without ever being offended by something some idiot said.

Perhaps technology could help. I think "delays" for Zoom participants might work but that could be cumbersome because meetings are hybrid with in-person audiences too that speak and comment in real time. It can be difficult switch back and forth when there is a delay.

When someone says something offensive, the Mayor should just cut them off for failing to comment on matters within the scope of the governing body - which is also California law. Just cut them off and move on.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Oct 18, 2023 at 4:10 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

Silencing virtual comments via Zoom isn't against the law in California. Modesto and Union City recently did so because of racist and anti-Semetic hate mongers. Of course, freedom of speech is part of the equation, and so is knowing how to effectively deal with technology.

The whole idea is to get rid of them, not delay them. Abusive people get blocked on technology on a daily basis. One bad apple spoils the bunch.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Oct 18, 2023 at 4:20 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

Walnut Creek and El Cerrito recently ended public comments via Zoom too. Taking a proactive approach is wise.

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on Oct 18, 2023 at 5:08 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

As Neil Grandy mentioned above, a short 2-3 second time delay should easily solve the problem. A staff member would be listening on headphones to the undelayed stream and would mute it (perhaps also disconnecting the person) if it became a zoom bomb. Otherwise, the slightly delayed feed would be played in the council chambers and to zoom participants, free of hurtful intentional disruption. It shouldn't be technologically very complicated or expensive.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 18, 2023 at 6:05 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

It worries me about the delay idea if someone is actually listening to make sure it should be heard. Who does the listening? What if someone wants to say something this particular individual disagrees with? What is the criteria for stopping the zoom going through?

I wonder how the person will be chosen, trained and makes decisions. Will someone else listen to those calls that were canceled?

Cancel culture is much too easy. If we stop calls on one topic, will it lead to stopping calls on other topics?

Posted by Mike Dennison, a resident of Community Center,
on Oct 19, 2023 at 7:37 am

Mike Dennison is a registered user.

They are called 'moderators' whose role is to keep the topic discussions on point and to weed-out trolls.

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on Oct 19, 2023 at 11:39 am

Mondoman is a registered user.

It's not an issues thing, just a common-sense way to keep the trolls out. Most of them whether domestic or foreign are trying to attack our democracy by preventing our community engagement. Canceling virtual comment gives them an un-neccessary win without our even trying.

You're right that procedures and training for the monitors should be developed and publicized, and certainly muted comments can be recorded and saved for possible reconsideration if that seems necessary.

It's clear to me that if we implement such a system, zoom bombings will stop immediately and we can probably stop monitoring within 6 months or a year.

Posted by Jacob Tanner, a resident of Barron Park,
on Oct 20, 2023 at 8:25 am

Jacob Tanner is a registered user.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a very controversial issue and a city council meeting is no place to address or discuss these matters in any form.

And the same applies topics like BLM, Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ+ equality, Pro-Choice/Pro-Life advocacies, and the war in Ukraine.

The speakers should restrict their commentaries and grievances to municipal issues and not personal opinions on outside issues.

Posted by Patrick Neilson, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Oct 21, 2023 at 11:13 am

Patrick Neilson is a registered user.

The PACC has enough problematic municipal issues to deal with let alone allowing commentators to address the topics cited by Mr. Tanner.

What happens outside of Palo Alto should remain outside of city politics.

Posted by Mildred Peterson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 21, 2023 at 2:27 pm

Mildred Peterson is a registered user.

With so many more pertinent matters to attend to, the Palo Alto City Council should restrict commentaries to city-related issues only and if this requires a moderator to censor topics like the war in Ukraine, the Israel-Palestine conflict, BLM, and LGBTQ advocacies so be it.

Posted by TripleLMember, a resident of Triple El,
on Oct 22, 2023 at 9:07 am

TripleLMember is a registered user.

It is very easy to game the 2-3 seconds delay. An alternative (already possible with chat functionality) is to require written comments from virtual participants.

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on Oct 22, 2023 at 11:59 am

Mondoman is a registered user.

Could you clarify on how gaming a delay/cutoff could work? As soon as the monitor heard something unacceptable on headphones, they would cut the feed, so no one else would hear anything, either locally or virtually.

Posted by Kenneth Clark, a resident of Professorville,
on Oct 22, 2023 at 12:16 pm

Kenneth Clark is a registered user.

The ZOOM app has a feature called Zoom Notes which enables a Zoom participant to jot notes and then share them with the other Zoom meeting participants.

In some ways, it is more effective than waiting one's turn to speak regardless of topic or vitriol.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 22, 2023 at 3:46 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"Posted by Neil Grandy, a resident of Old Palo Alto,

The solution is simple...like radio phone-in shows, there is a time delay before outside commentaries are broadcast.

Use this technology as it is not rocket science."

Neil Grandy is absolutely correct. Decades ago, AOL and other online services used this type of moderation when they had nationally known guests -- politicians, celebrities, authors etc.-- addressing online forums attended by hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands people that had a question-and-answer session at the end.

Just as with any tv/radio talk show, the moderators listened to / pre-screened the comments / questions BEFORE releasing them to featured guest for answers and the audience.

It's not rocket science. This was being done back in the late 1980s to great success. An SRI employee (Tom Mandel) who was also "Time Magazine's Man on The Web" hosted candidates for national political office and recruited 8 moderators to make sure everything went smoothly.

It's also possible for the clerk/online moderator to get contact info from the callers to make sure they are Palo Alto residents and to call them back at their number.

I'm frankly amazed that Palo Alto / the City Clerk let 7 people spouting hate speech make their statements without pulling the plug. This type of practice has been all over the news, has been happening for months all over the country. Maybe people should have paid attention before this??

Posted by Mondoman, a resident of Green Acres,
on Oct 22, 2023 at 3:54 pm

Mondoman is a registered user.

The Notes feature sounds good; since that's already available, it makes the School Board's decision on Friday to just ban all virtual commenting seem like a ploy to avoid uncomfortable questions.

Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 22, 2023 at 4:53 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

FYI. The video of the meeting was posted on YouTube yesterday, with the hate speakers deleted, as it should be.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 22, 2023 at 5:05 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Thinking some more about this, maybe the City Clerk or someone could read our emailed comments aloud. That combined with in-person comments might make this a win-win since I'll bet the emailed comments are largely ignored.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 22, 2023 at 6:01 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

I'm in agreement with the email comments being read aloud. I have written on many occasions to the Council and am told that my email is public record, but nothing else comes of it. Perhaps if we all knew that our emails would be read aloud it might make for less need to visit council in person to speak as well as alleviate the need for zoom comments.

Let's try with reading emails aloud, read by the clerk, and use a good technology (email) better than we have been.

Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace,
on Oct 24, 2023 at 1:00 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Thank you Mayor Kou for your sincere and personal appeal last week to unite in common grief and to move forward with common humanity in troubled times.

Now, how do we best protect the community and our open processes in the wake of the planned, coordinated, and hateful attacks that coincidentally followed; a series of gut punches to anyone who experienced it.

Pre-pandemic, pre-remote public participation, on rare occasion hateful words have been spoken at this meeting. But there was an important difference: we could see who the speakers were, which was a deterrent to their returning.

Both then and now, for all numbered (and lettered) agenda items, as per your written procedures: “Public comments or testimony must be related to the matter under consideration." Therefore, the mayor should and did interrupt and shut off any speaker who, after fair warning, strayed from the agenda item.

I recommend the warning and the trigger be sooner and any follow-up statement be held until the bigot is completely off-line.

But in the un-numbered public comment period ­�" this one �"­ it is the speaker who chooses the topic and who can inject hate speech, shielded by its First Amendment protections.

Staff and/or council leaving the room, facing away, or listening but not tolerating are not the best responses in my view. Because there is no First Amendment right to remote public comment.

And so, I recommend that for this “open mike" public comment period only, speakers should be required to be present in the chambers.

Our good citizenry who cannot attend, can write to the council directly or ask a friend to speak here on their behalf.

It is a small price to pay to give pause to those who seek cover in the shadows for their hate.

And to allay any fears in these chambers as well as to maintain decorum, which was breached during this public comment period last week, there should be a uniformed public safety officer present during that time.

Thank you.


Posted by Deidre Phillips, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis,
on Oct 25, 2023 at 11:13 am

Deidre Phillips is a registered user.

As Mr. Tanner & Ms. Peterson noted, perhaps it is best to keep the PACC agenda focused on Palo Alto issues rather than addressing societal and global ills that Palo Alto has no control over.

This includes the current Israel-Palestine conflict, the war in Ukraine, LGBTQ+ issues, and various [portion removed] advocacies such as BLM and Critical Race Theory.

The majority of Palo Altans are primarily concerned with municipal issues that directly impact their lives such as railroad crossings, over-developnent, dog park expansion, and the deterioration of the California Avenue retail district.

Posted by Emile Cabron, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 26, 2023 at 8:13 am

Emile Cabron is a registered user.

The city council meetings should not be used as a grievance platform for issues taking place outside of Palo Alto.

Posted by scott, a resident of Palo Verde,
on Oct 27, 2023 at 1:58 pm

scott is a registered user.

Good time to remind people that when this group did leafleting (also a first amendment protected activity) the police spent a lot of time and effort collecting soliciting and collecting citizen complaints so they could appear responsive. Even though they never had any intention of doing any policing, because leafleting enjoys constitutional protections.

This issue is maybe a little different. It might be possible to craft an ordinance that is compatible with the first amendment, and also makes some of their tactics illegal. For example, they try to hide what they're doing by starting their comment with something innocuous before diving into a tirade. Banning that sort of tactic in a comment as part of a law that bans specific ways of disrupting public meetings could well pass constitutional muster.

You can definitely pass a law against providing a false identity when commenting in a public meeting. Or using a VPN. (And shutting down connections from known VPN providers.)

Then you can have the police do their jobs, get warrants for ISP records to identify anyone who violates these laws. They seem to have the time.

These don't have to be laws with severe consequences, by the way. What these people fear is exposure. So you just need enough legal leverage to get their identity in public records.

Also, from what I've read, I think the council and staff are already doing a pretty good job minimizing the disruption. You're never going to succeed in banning people from having awful views, and the first amendment means they can say them.

Posted by Lenora Jackson, a resident of Ventura,
on Oct 29, 2023 at 5:11 pm

Lenora Jackson is a registered user.

Times have changed. Civility and common courtesy are no longer a part of some people's social repertoire.

Anonymous online presence has contributed to this societal phenomena and there is no going back unless some form of censorship or moderation is implemented at city council meetings.

The other option would be to set aside a portion of the council meetings for an open forum where any topic can be raised regardless of appropriateness.

Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.



Post a comment

In order to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion, commenting on stories is available to those who are registered users. If you are already a registered user and the commenting form is not below, you need to log in. If you are not registered, you can do so here.

Please make sure your comments are truthful, on-topic and do not disrespect another poster. Don't be snarky or belittling. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

See our announcement about requiring registration for commenting.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Almanac Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

My Holiday Wish List for Menlo Park
By Dana Hendrickson | 3 comments | 3,931 views

Holiday Fun in San Francisco- Take the Walking Tour for An Evening of Sparkle!
By Laura Stec | 8 comments | 2,255 views

Pacifica’s first brewery closes its doors
By The Peninsula Foodist | 0 comments | 2,220 views

Premiere! “I Do I Don’t: How to build a better marriage” – Here, a page/weekday
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,635 views


Support local families in need

Your contribution to the Holiday Fund will go directly to nonprofits supporting local families and children in need. Last year, Almanac readers and foundations contributed over $300,000.