Public Participation? Zoombombers Are Causing Local Cities to Rethink Their Virtual Meeting Policies | News | San Luis Obispo

Since 2020, city councils have been grappling with the phenomenon of Zoombombing, or virtual trolls disrupting public debate with hate speech.

David Mullinax, regional public relations manager for the League of California Cities, said the issue began during the COVID-19 pandemic as councils struggled to keep meetings accessible and socially distanced.

“We’re struggling with this too,” Mullinax said. “I don’t see it ending anytime soon.”

Click to zoom WHAT TO DO Governments across the Central Coast are making varying decisions about how to handle inappropriate comments from Zoombombers at public meetings. - COVER IMAGE FROM ADOBE STOCK

  • Cover image from Adobe Stock
  • WHAT TO DO State governments across the Central Coast are making varying decisions about how to handle inappropriate comments from Zoombombers during public meetings.

California has no state laws, so local governments must decide how to address the issue while still respecting the First Amendment.

Mullinax said legislation is in the works, but for now, cities across the Central Coast are deciding individually what to do — whether to ban virtual commenting altogether or implement protocols for removing speakers from meetings.

David Fleishman, Atascadero city attorney and former Solvang city attorney, has encountered Zoombombers at city council meetings multiple times, most recently in Atascadero during a June 11 meeting where public speakers discussed Pride Month.

In addition to the residents who attended the meeting and spoke in person in support of the city adopting a Pride Month proclamation, three anonymous speakers, speaking virtually, expressed opposition to the idea.

“As a society, we are becoming more and more demeaning,” one virtual speaker said, while another praised the bullying an LGBTQ+ child experienced in the Atascadero school system, as well as other offensive and hateful comments.

A third speaker was disconnected from Zoom when they moved on to the topic of white supremacy, which Fleishman found personally offensive.

According to Fleishman, the first two people were allowed to continue speaking because they were addressing topics that were within the council’s purview, and while their comments were uncomfortable, they addressed issues that were likely within the council’s purview and did not involve any physical threats.

“Unfortunately, they were allowed to continue,” he said at the meeting.

Fleishman said hate speech is difficult to catch before it happens and can be protected by the First Amendment. In November 2023, the Solvang City Council experienced inflammatory and racist comments from virtual users.

After those incidents, the council proposed a new policy that would give the mayor the ability to silence hate speech, issue a warning and remove the speaker if the problem persists. However, according to Solvang City Secretary Annamarie Porter, the policy has not been adopted by the city.

Fleishman said that at city council meetings, residents cannot bring up just any topics they consider important; they must fall within the council’s purview.

“A meeting of the city council is a meeting of the management board of a municipal company, in which the public may participate in accordance with the law,” he said. New times“But ultimately, it’s a city council business meeting and there’s business to be done. So when the speech that’s being given conflicts with the business meeting, that’s where the line is drawn.”

Click to zoom NEW TERRITORY The Atascadero City Council has faced criticism for its response to virtual speakers the city has dubbed Zoombombers. - JAYSON MELLOM ARCHIVE PHOTO

  • Archive photo by Jayson Mellom
  • NEW TERRITORY The Atascadero City Council has faced criticism for its response to virtual speakers the city has dubbed Zoombombers.

In June, members of the Atascadero Zoombombers were given time to speak publicly at a meeting, but comments were muted in the recording available on YouTube.

“I’m old enough in my law practice to remember a time when we didn’t have access to local cable TV, Zoom or any other remote means for citizens to participate in city council meetings,” he said, adding that city councils are not required to offer virtual comment or meetings but may do so as a convenience for those unable to attend in person.

Fleishman said cities do not have to hold virtual meetings, so they can decide which comments will be available online and which will not.

“The city is not obligated to post (the video) from YouTube at all in this particular case,” he said. “So if it gets silenced, that’s something the city has the ability to do, but they are not obligated to post the YouTube footage on their website or anywhere else.”

There are no new rules for virtual public comment in Atascadero, and any upcoming changes are in the “discussion phase,” Fleishman said. For now, the council is not allowing virtual comment.

The SLO City Council is banning live virtual commentary and requiring video comments to be submitted no later than three hours before each meeting for consideration, following the Zoombombers who made multiple racist comments during the Feb. 6 meeting that voted to declare February Black History Month.

Anti-LGBTQ-plus Zoombombers took to the floor at the Arroyo Grande City Council meeting on April 23. When the virtual comments devolved into what City Attorney Issac Rosen deemed hate speech, he intervened and warned that if their comments did not align with the city’s interests or if they used defamatory language, they would be removed from the meeting.

Rosen did not respond to New times’ request for comment.

Some residents who attended the June 11 meeting in Atascadero felt the council did not draw the line early enough to keep speakers out.

At the council’s next meeting on June 25, public commentators said the council had “failed spectacularly.”

Resident and Atascadero Pride Festival founder Thom Waldman attended both meetings and was not pleased with the council’s response to the Zoombombers.

“The problem I have is the mayor has not taken any action to stop what’s been going on. They’re trying to cover it up under the guise of free speech,” Waldman said New times“And the city attorney said since it wasn’t a physical threat, there was nothing we could do about it.”

Gala Pride and Diversity Center Operations Director JBird noted that other city councils are responding to Zoombomers differently than Atascadero’s.

JBird noted that Arroyo Grande City Attorney Rosen stopped commenters before they became hate speech and had clear rules for blocking people who crossed a line.

“Compared to the Atascadero City Council and watching the video, I saw that the city attorney did not set those expectations, did not limit them and gave them more time,” JBird said.

JBird said the Atascadero City Council failed to uphold its responsibilities during virtual public comment, noting that Fleishman only interrupted a speaker when he felt personally offended.

“We’re like, ‘OK, wait a minute. So it has to be something personal first,’” JBird said. Δ

Contact author Libbey Hanson at (email protected).