City councils address hate speech and ‘Zoom bombing’ at public meetings

Following the recent wave of hateful comments, cities in King County and beyond have taken a step back to review their procedures.

At a Jan. 8 Snoqualmie City Council meeting, the council and others witnessed virtual participants who spewed racial slurs and other hateful speech during public comments.

Snoqualmie is one of many cities that have recently experienced “Zoom bombing” — a term coined during the pandemic — that entail racial, antisemitic and other hateful speech during city council meetings.

When questioned about the possibility of Snoqualmie City Council reviewing and amending its rules of procedure, the council, as a collective, responded to the Valley Record, affirming the city’s commitment to inclusivity and condemning hate, violence and terror:

“While we support the public’s First Amendment right to free speech and respect diverse opinions, we must forcefully condemn any heinous, hateful comments. The city stands firm in its commitment to being welcoming to those from all walks of life, and we invite all of our residents and community members to join us in taking a strong stand against hate and discrimination.”

Additionally, the Snoqualmie City Council chose to redact the hate speech from the video recording posted on the city’s YouTube page.

Following the recent wave of hateful comments across King County and the surrounding counties, many cities have taken a step back to review their procedures — attempting to sift out hateful speech, but continuing to allow accessible ways for residents to relay their authentic concerns.

While the First Amendment allows hate speech, the government can still enact regulations on speech.

“That means the government can regulate the time, place, and manner of speech, provided the regulations are reasonable and content-neutral,” according to the Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC).

The City of Issaquah took a preemptive approach at a November city council meeting, where the council considered revising the rules of procedure for general audience comments.

City Attorney Rachel Bender Turpin explained this matter was brought to the council’s attention because of the growing risk of Zoom bombings. Without a revision, the council may be unable to shut down comments according to policy.

“These groups tend to target the cities that allow comment on any topic because they’ve learned enough to know what they can and can’t do under the First Amendment themselves,” she said.

After tedious deliberation, in the end, the council chose to request that public comments be directly related to city programs, projects, services or events.

While the council members primarily considered one option, they acknowledged alternative approaches, including those used by other cities and recommendations from MRSC to mitigate hateful speech.

These recommendations include eliminating remote public comments, requiring public commenters to turn on their video, or limiting public comments to items on the agenda.

The Federal Way City Council experienced a Zoom bombing at a Dec. 5 meeting where four virtual commenters made racist and antisemitic comments during the public comment period, according to the Federal Way Mirror.

Once the council determined the speech impertinent, Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell and the city attorney worked together to cut off the speakers, which aligns with their rules for public comment.

“City Council Rules of Procedure prohibit any personal, impertinent, threatening or slanderous remarks during public comment. The Mayor or Committee Chair may interrupt comments that continue too long or violate the rules of conduct,” according to the Federal Way website.

Following the council meeting, there have been no procedural changes. Instead, the council has reinforced a pre-existing rule, according to the Federal Way Mirror. This rule requires individuals to sign up before the council meeting to comment instead of simply indicating they want to speak at the time of public comments.

The Federal Way City Council chose not to redact the hate speech from the video recording posted on the city’s YouTube page.

The Lynwood City Council experienced a similar incident at a Nov. 27 council meeting.

According to the Daily (Everett) Herald, three commenters made a series of antisemitic and racist comments over Zoom. At the following city council meeting, city spokesperson Nathan MacDonald said eight similar commenters spewed hateful messages.

“There is no room for hate speech in Lynnwood and we’re taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” MacDonald told the Herald.

Since these incidents, the city revised its policy, creating an extra step for virtual commentators. Virtual commenters must register 24 hours before the meeting. According to the Herald, registering includes an online form asking for the full name, address, the meeting they want to comment on, and what they want to speak about.

“So far, it’s been a good success,” Macdonald said. “It’s not to be intentionally intrusive for our community members, but we’ve seen it as a deterrent for bad actors.”

The City of Everett News reported a group of remote individuals shared hateful, racist and antisemitic comments at the Sep. 27 Everett City Council meeting.

In a statement, the council said they were not looking to eliminate the virtual option for participation because it increases the accessibility of the meetings.

Angela Ely, the executive assistant to the city council, noted that after research and consultation with the city attorney, they also chose to enhance Zoom security by implementing a sign-up method.

Ely said commenters must register at least 30 minutes before the meeting, providing their name, email, what city they reside in and whether they want to make a general or agenda item-specific comment.

She added that commenters will not have the power to unmute themselves.

The Everett City Council chose to redact the hate speech from the video recording posted on the city’s YouTube page.

King County, Kenmore, Mountlake Terrace, Lake Forest Park, Bremerton, Tacoma, Ellensburg, Port Angeles, Blaine, Whatcom County and others have also endured Zoom bombers spewing hate speech at council meetings.

Depending on the rules set in place, some councils can stop the commenter, while others must reluctantly allow the commenter their time. However, many are looking for alternative rules to set in place, such as the suggested guideline set by MRSC.