Want to speak at a San Jose meeting? Show up in person
A union worker speaks to the San Jose City Council ahead of a wage theft policy vote on April 11, 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

San Jose is nixing virtual public comment at all meetings, sparking concerns around free speech and access to city government.

Starting Tuesday, only residents attending city meetings in person will be able to provide public comment. People watching remotely via Zoom can no longer call in to voice their opinions. Officials say the decision is because a handful of people have abused the virtual tool to spew hate speech.

Numerous antisemitic and racial slurs have interrupted San Jose council meetings during virtual public comment segments over the past few months. The last time racist and hateful Zoom bombing was commonplace happened at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when residents could make public comments behind the anonymity of a screen.

“It died down then and I was hoping that would happen again now, but it hasn’t,” City Clerk Toni Taber told San José Spotlight.

Mayor Matt Mahan said it’s imperative the city finds a tech solution to end disruptive hate speech while maintaining public access, especially in the heart of Silicon Valley. San Jose City Council meetings start at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, making it difficult for most residents to attend in person.

“While I share my colleagues’ desire to remove hate speech from our meetings, I don’t support eliminating one of the best new tools we have for expanding public participation in our civic life,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “Everyone should have the ability to engage in our civic discourse — single mothers who can’t leave their job at 2 p.m., caretakers who spend their days making sure our grandparents are taken care of, neighbors who are immunocompromised and unable to attend in-person events.”

Some local governments in the Bay Area, such as San Francisco, Walnut Creek and Union City, have already ended or restricted virtual public comments. Taber said this move is intended to be temporary, while San Jose explores other technologies that may help reduce hate speech.

“We were committed to keeping the hybrid public comment because I think it is incredibly valuable and an incredible tool for members of community to be able to participate in their government without having to take a whole day out of their their schedule,” Taber said. “That is why we will, in the next few months, really figure out what solutions (exist).”

The city’s goal is to find a way to shield residents from hate speech without violating First Amendment rights, a difficult balance to strike.

California’s Brown Act prohibits governments from requiring people to disclose their identities to observe public meetings virtually or in person. People are allowed to use a fake email or name to make public comment. The city clerk’s office runs reports to try finding out who’s calling and disrupting meetings on Zoom, but Taber said she thinks people are manipulating their IP addresses because calls come in from Florida and Norway.

“Callers can also frequently change their names during the meeting… so we would see speakers speak under one name and then they come back with a different name,” Taber said. “So we were trying to catch those as much as we can, but we do tend to err on the side of protecting free speech.”

Taber hopes that by June, there will be an alternative solution in place. She said she’s already talking to tech experts, and one idea is to create a function that lets Zoom attendees opt out of hearing hate speech by using artificial intelligence.

“I don’t know if it’s technologically feasible… but we could have a slight delay in people speaking so AI could recognize (what) people are saying, like a list of words that would be considered offensive, and then the viewer has the option to mute (those words),” Taber said.

Garrick Percival, political science professor at San Jose State University, said people most affected by the change are lower-income earners who can’t take time off work, those with transportation issues, parents, older residents and others with disabilities that make it difficult to attend in person.

He noted if the city can’t find a technical solution, then officials should consider starting meetings later in the evening so more residents can participate.

“It’s a very small number of people making really horrific statements and ruining the process for everybody else,” Percival told San José Spotlight. “These technologies aren’t going away, and I think cities are gonna have to wrestle with how to best integrate these tools to increase access.”

Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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