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.