The South Bay is being invaded by racist and hateful Zoom bombing in its government meetings, causing uncertainty among public officials on how to contain the problem.
At the Sunnyvale City Council meeting on Tuesday, residents were subjected to racist and antisemitic rhetoric during the remote portions of public comment. Last week the San Jose City Council meeting was bombarded with similar behavior. City officials throughout the region are turning to their legal counsel for answers on how to balance free speech, without cutting off virtual public comment, when faced with hate speech.
More than a dozen callers remotely flooded Sunnyvale’s council meeting with inflammatory public comments, asking councilmembers about antisemitic conspiracy theories or shouting anti-Black and anti-immigrant statements. Mayor Larry Klein and Vice Mayor Omar Din cut off most callers, reminding them to stay on topic or denouncing their hate speech on behalf of the city.
After councilmembers asked City Attorney John Nagel about hateful comments, he affirmed that specific people can’t be barred from speaking remotely during public comment, but added he was working with Klein and Din to address these interruptions.
Klein later told San José Spotlight the city has been working on balancing access to public comment and not allowing hate speech. He said it’s important for families who would need child care to be able to access public comment remotely.
“The hybrid meetings provide a lot of value and that’s why council made the decision in the long term to maintain that hybrid option,” he told San José Spotlight. “But of course it allows people from outside your community to ultimately provide some of the testimony we heard tonight.”
At the end of the meeting, Councilmember Richard Mehlinger showed a slideshow of locations he visited in Vienna, Austria, including photos from Judenplatz, a town square central to the city’s Jewish community, and the Jewish Museum. Mehlinger, whose grandfather fled Vienna in 1938 and whose great uncles were killed by Nazis, said history shows inflammatory comments have directly led to genocides.
“It’s fundamentally intimidating to members of the public,” Mehlinger told San José Spotlight. “Something like we saw tonight can’t be tolerated. Yes, legally we have the First Amendment, there’s case law. That’s something I’ll leave to the lawyers. But politically, it must be challenged and it must not be allowed to stand.”
The Anti-Defamation League has tracked an increase in antisemitism and hate speech at public forums. The disruption of public meetings has swept the region over the last several months, with governments in San Francisco, Walnut Creek and Contra Costa County considering ending virtual public comment to combat hate speech.
Numerous antisemitic and racial slurs interrupted last week’s San Jose council meeting during virtual public comment segments. Councilmember Dev Davis said she didn’t appreciate the disruption to the council’s regular business.
“I find the slurs that are being used by some of the public commenters to be very disruptive, and frankly, anxiety inducing for some of us,” Davis said at the meeting. She declined to comment further for this story.
San Jose City Attorney Nora Frimann did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan called the hate speech disruptions “incredibly disappointing,” and said the city does not tolerate hate in any form. He said his strong preference is to keep Zoom as an avenue for public engagement.
“There’s certainly a tension between free speech and maintaining our high standards of inclusivity,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “That’s something we’re grappling with and I certainly hope it doesn’t come to needing to take away a tool that has helped many members of our community participate.”